by Tamara Scully
The Northern Grapes Project spanned five years, from 2011 to 2016, involved 11 universities, a county extension association, 23 industry associations, and was funded by the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative Program. The project’s objective was to focus on the emerging cold hardy grapes industry, which spans 12 states from New England through New York and into the Midwest, and provide research and education to help the industry thrive. The three-pronged strategy involved viticulture, enology and marketing.
The project began with a survey in the spring of 2012, and closed with fall 2016. Brigid Tuck, Senior Economic Impact Analyst at the University of Minnesota, and Tim Martinson, Senior Extension Associate, Department of Horticulture, Cornell University, presented the results from these surveys, which help to document the growth and the changes that occurred in the cold hardy grapes industry during the project’s duration.
The surveys provided the opportunity to “understand how big the industry is,” and to “see how it changed over the time of the project,” Tuck said.
At the beginning of the project, it was forecasted that the production and sales of cold hardy wines would double in the five years, the quality of cold hardy wines would increase, and sales would increase as consumers became educated about the product and regional marketing helped to brand the wine. These projections were proved to be quite accurate based upon the results of the survey data.
Economic impact
The region’s wine industry in general has grown more than six percent in the five years of the project, Tuck said. But the cold hardy portion has grown by 34 percent. The amount of locally grown grapes used by wineries increased as well, and the total economic contribution of cold hardy grapes rose from $400 million to over $539 million dollars.
“The cold hardy grape industry contributed $539.1 million dollars of the economy in the 12 states in 2015, created and supported almost 18,700 jobs which paid $190 million in labor income,” Tuck said.
Winery tourism added over 300 million dollars to the economy, with more than half of that coming from the cold hardy grapes segment. A large increase in tasting rooms and visitors, an increase in cold hardy grape acreage, and increasing vertical integration in the cold hardy wine industry have occurred in the five year span.
More wineries have added their own vineyards, growing their own grapes to better control their products. The average size of cold hardy vineyards has increased. A mere five percent of wineries did not have a tasting room in 2016. In 2011, at the beginning of the project, 21 percent of wineries did not have a tasting room.
Wineries are charging for their tastings, have added other services such as food or other beverages to the menu, and have increased the average price for a bottle of wine. Very few — less than two percent — of wineries now give away complementary bottles, while 13 percent did so in 2011.
“We’ve seen the evolution of the tasting room in our data,” Tuck said, and with 2/3 of the wineries in rural areas, tourism is critical and “the wineries understand this.”
Cold hardy grape acreage has increased from 5,900 acres to 7,580 acres. Marquette and Frontenec make up more than 50 percent of the red grape varietals grown, while La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc varietals represent just short of 50 percent of the cold hardy white grapes grown.
Wineries expect to expand in the next five years, with 75 percent expecting to grow. Forty-seven percent of vineyards expect to increase in size, while 48 percent will stay the same size. The increase in size has led to labor concerns being a primary issue now. In 2011, most cold hardy grape vineyards had little labor other than the owner. In 2015, 58 percent had paid labor, primarily due to an increase in acreage from an average of just over four acres to 12 acres in size. The largest vineyard in the Finger Lakes region of New York is over 800 acres, but the majority of surveys returned were from vineyards with less than three acres, so the size of cold hardy grape vineyards is somewhat misrepresented.
Viticulture changes
Martinson addressed the changes cold hardy grape growers have seen over the five-year period, as well as some of the concerns, which growers need to continue to address. The first survey saw that many respondents were new to the industry and did not grasp the complexity of some of the questions regarding cultivation practices. The latest survey helped to identify areas in which education is still needed, such as the proper use of fungicides or insecticides, and crop management techniques, but reflected a more educated and experienced grower response, he said.
An area of concern is the tonnage per acre yields. The cold hardy grape industry can reasonably expect to produce four tons/acre, and five is not out of reach, Martinson said, yet 46 percent of the respondents in 2012, and 43 percent in 2016, where growing less than this amount.
“Low yield is a recipe for bankruptcy,” Martinson said. Any less than a four ton/acre yield “is too little for profit.”
The industry has seen a shift from vertical shoot position (VSP) trellising to high wire systems. Yield is lower with VSP, with reduced clusters, smaller cluster size and smaller fruit.
“I would like to think that the Northern Grapes Project had something to do with this change to the high cordon system,” he said.
Canopy management responses showed that “we’ve gotten a little bit more efficient in our labor.” Crop adjustment responses showed that too many growers are improperly pruning clusters, particularly at veraison, with about 33 percent doing so.
“That late in the season, if you remove clusters, you might get slightly higher Brix at harvest,” but “it’s not going to reduce your acidity, it’s not going to modify your ph, it’s not going to have a lot of impact on the cluster characteristics after harvest,” Martinson said. “Every cluster that you throw on the ground is basically money that you throw away.”
Growers also were not monitoring soil ph, or tissue testing mature vines, at recommended intervals. Fungicides and insecticides were being used in excess and ineffectively by some vineyards, with up to 11 passes of insecticide or over 30 of fungicides being applied on some acreage.
Grape phylloxera, grape berry moth and Japanese beetles are the top three insect concerns, and downy and powdery mildew are the two top fungal concerns. Early fungal disease management will prevent major pathogens from getting into the fruit, and any disease that occurs later will remain a foliar concern, not affecting the fruit, so more than three to seven passes of fungicide is excessive, Martinson said.
“I have no idea past five or six sprays what they could possibly have out in the vineyard to be putting on that much spray,” Martinson said of insecticide use.
The Northern Grapes Project has come to a close, but with the generous donations from industry donors and state and regional associations, the educational programming, such as the webinar series, will continue monthly through May 2017. Almost $15,000 has been pledged to date, to help keep the newsletter and other outreach available.
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