University vineyard studies taste potential for cash crop

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, are hitting the bottle at public wine tastings.

The Valley Road Field Laboratory in Reno, an experimental plot, did a study to evaluate how well 12 varieties of wine groups would survive, grow, and yield in Northern Nevada. How would their water efficiency compare to other crops? Could a quality wine be produced from their fruit?

The findings are sweet. The low irrigation requirements of Vitis vinifera are well suited for arid Nevada. Premium wine grapes use only one-12th the amount of water as alfalfa, one of Nevada's major crops.

For example, in Churchill County farmers pour a thirsty application of 3.5 acre-feet of water annually to grow an acre of alfalfa. Compare that with a dainty sip of 0.27 acre-foot for grapes.

The study divided the vineyard into two treatments, drought-stressed and well-watered.

The result? When growing grapes, less is more.

Once the plants were started with a deep watering in the spring (16 gallons per plant) irrigation was reduced by 80 percent from the previous year.

The observations suggest that wine grapes are intolerant to excessive moisture.

"If we give them less water in summer, the vines survive better in winter," says Grant Cramer, professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, which is within the college of agriculture, biotechnology and natural resources.

Irrigation also influences flavors, says Cramer. "We measure quality indicators: sugar, acid and color." The college also holds public taste tests to measure flavor.

Valley Road Vineyard was planted in 1995 and started making wines in 1999.

"Our wines continue to improve due to increased knowledge on picking the grapes at the right maturity, improved management of the vines, age of the vines, climate and of course winemaking practices," says the vineyard newsletter. "Wines are experimental wines, which are made to evaluate the vine's potential for Northern Nevada."

In 2002, California's economy reaped a $44 billion profit from its wine industry. Meanwhile, Washington State reaped $2.4 billion and Colorado $6.5 million. The climates of the wine growing regions in Washington and Colorado are similar to that of Northern Nevada. Plus, wineries bring tourist dollars.

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