Wine column: Research could use a shot in the arm

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10/20/2010 4:35 PM |

Grape growers on Long Island have an extraordinary resource in Alice Wise, the senior resource educator in viticulture at Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead. There Alice maintains a research vineyard designed to evaluate the best varietals and viticultural practices for Long Island. Every year since 1996, she has gathered information on each of the 2,000 individual vines she tends by counting clusters and weighing them. She manages research trials on this and several commercial growers’ experimental plantings, guided by input from a growers’ advisory panel, and maintains a website with frequently updated information.

I was reminded of how important Alice is to the industry recently when I saw one of the regular messages she sends to growers. Comparing notes with researchers in other parts of the country, she has learned (for example) that while brown marmorated stink bugs haven’t been seen on Long Island, they are a major problem this year in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She cautions the growers to be vigilant. Forewarned is forearmed.

While entirely serious and professional in her communications, Alice always conveys an unusually intelligent, watchful and inclusive viewpoint, with a wry bit of humor that makes her most technical writing a joy to read.

Like the rest of Cooperative Extension, Alice’s work is funded in part by Suffolk County. She also applies for and administers her program’s research grants and relies on private contributions. If you’re not a grower, you’re probably not aware of her work, but her research and assistance have been crucial to the success of our wine region on Long Island.

Whenever I see Alice, in a meeting or working in the research vineyard, she is dedicated to her work. She knows that the growers count on her research and respect her considerable efforts to improve the industry. But I wish she and her fellow researchers at Cornell Cooperative Extension here on Long Island had more autonomy, and more support, from both public and private sectors. Because Cornell is a statewide entity, most of the wine-related work is done in Geneva, N.Y., a location chosen initially because its climate is so challenging that any recommendations made there would apply to the entire state. Considering that Long Island is the principal region of New York where European wine grapes can be reliably grown, year in and year out, wouldn’t it make sense if more of the state’s resources came here, if the goal is to foster a sustainable industry?

I have a bee in my bonnet about the need to increase support for Cooperative Extension on Long Island after returning from Laimburg, a provincial agricultural research facility in Alto Adige, the South Tyrolean Alps of Italy. I was really struck by how much Laimburg has been able to do since, thirty 30 years ago, it gained special legal status with administrative autonomy within the province. Its mission, to “work in collaboration with the farming industry, continually seeking new solutions to our ever-changing agricultural problems,” is virtually identical to that of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Like CCE, Laimburg works in several agricultural arenas, including fruits, flowers, herbs, vegetables and animal husbandry, doing research, publishing papers, offering lectures and using scientific methods to evaluate results. The biggest difference, as I see it, is that Laimburg has more freedom to function in an entrepreneurial way, and funds a large percentage of its work by selling products that are the result of its research, including wine.

The Laimburg winery is housed in a cavern blasted out of red porphyrite. Fitted with the latest in winemaking technology, it also encompasses an event space that it rents out, increasing sales of its wines and generating even more revenue. From 45 hectares of vines, it makes 200,000 bottles of premium wine. Some of them are named after traditional mountain deities.

Tyroleans are still enchanted by their traditional legends, and in tasting these wines, I felt as if I had entered a world of Alpine Dungeons and Dragons. Take, for example, their reserve lagrein (a common varietal of the region). Called Barbagol after the “Master Wizard, who bedazzles the senses,” it is a full-blooded, vinous brew with tangy fennel and coffee flavors, wonderfully round and complex in the 2005 vintage. Or Rayet, the pinot blanc, named for “a shining crystal with magical powers.” Extremely intense and phenolic, this is indeed a potent wine.

Now, besides making wine, the Laimburg viticulture department is working on cosmetics made from grape byproducts.

Laimburg also created and maintains the region’s No. 1 tourist attraction, the Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens. The restaurant there uses Laimburg produce and sells Laimburg wines. Big revenue, big opportunity.

We here pride ourselves on our international leadership. We do have the brightest and best, as with Alice Wise and her experimental work, but others are surpassing us who have more support and more ability to take risks. And that’s not magic. It’s common sense.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.