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COLUMBIA, MO.

How the Grape and Wine Institute Is Pushing the Local Wine Industry Further

University of Missouri students are learning how to produce world-class American wines and sharing that knowledge with local winemakers

  • 11 min to read

In late spring, Midwest grapevines typically develop green clusters at their shoots, which flower and then yield grapes. Several years ago, though, Sarah Schmidt, owner and winemaker at Baltimore Bend Vineyard in Waverly, Missouri, noticed a decline in her Chardonel grapes. The once-thriving vines were yellowing, and the leaves were withering and falling off. She tried to solve the problem by pruning the vines and feeding the soil different nutrients and fertilizers, to no avail, and her Chardonel harvest steadily dwindled. out of options on her own, she decided to consult the experts at the University of Missouri (MU)’s Grape and Wine Institute (GWI).

After a quick phone call, the GWI sent scientists out to her 7-acre vineyard, located approximately halfway between Columbia, Missouri, and Kansas City, to take pictures and collect soil samples. Soon, Schmidt had her answer: A soil insect, the American dagger nematode, was the culprit. The next spring, under the GWI’s recommendation, Schmidt uprooted 2 acres of the all-but-dead Chardonel vines (an experience she describes as “heart-wrenching”), and applied an insecticide that had to lie dormant for two years before the vines could be replaced. Today, Schmidt says she’s just now seeing her Chardonel vines mature once more and considers the outcome a success.

Although grape-growers and winemakers might not have issues like this every season, when they do have problems, the GWI is armed to help. The institute conducts research in both winemaking and grape-growing to positively impact the health and growth of the wine industry in the region. And although it’s based in Columbia, the GWI has satellite research centers and vineyards across the state. The Missouri Wine and Grape Board funds the research and extension of the viticulture and enology (the scientific study of wines) programs – between $850,000 and $925,000 annually, depending on the year – through a statewide tax on wine sales.

As part of the GWI’s extension network of more than 120 regional wineries, Schmidt has called on the institute a few times and has been pleased with its help and responsiveness. “I try to recommend the Grape and Wine Institute to a lot of growers,” Schmidt says, “especially new growers.” She is just one example of how the institute can immediately impact the local wine industry and its winemakers, as opposed to the long-term and ongoing research that it also conducts each day.

Without the thriving wine industry across Missouri, the institute couldn’t exist, says Misha Kwasniewski, Ph.D., assistant research professor and enology-program leader at the GWI. The support goes both ways, though, as many winemakers share their knowledge about what’s going on at their vineyards with the institute, contribute rows in their vineyards for senior thesis research and give lectures to students on new grape varieties.

“It’s very much a symbiotic relationship between us doing our research and extension activities, with wineries working with us and working with one another,” Kwasniewski says.

From Grape to Class

The institute is part of the College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources at MU, with faculty spanning both the Food Science and Nutrition and Plant Sciences departments. The official track a student can take is by earning a food science degree focused on enology or a minor in enology or viticulture. The GWI offers these classes to undergrads and graduate students and will soon introduce a four-year program at the university. Students from other programs and majors, like hospitality management or journalism, can also take courses like the popular introductory Grapes and Wines of the World, which teaches wine science, history and about various wine regions. (Who would have thought that a class focused on alcohol would be so popular among college students!)

“You get people who show up who think it’s going to be a semester of tasting wine, and then one day, they see a bunch of chemical structures and have to figure out the kinetics of fermentation,” Kwasniewski says with a chuckle. “There will be those who are really excited about it and others who quickly realize this is a real science.”

But students do get to do some tasting – it’s an important part of the learning process, particularly for senior-level enology classes. (Students spit after every taste to comply with university and state regulations.) The program’s work with barrel aging allows students to taste, smell and feel what happens when the same wine goes into different types of barrels.

“Once you get to smaller barrels, everything sort of speeds up, so in the course of a semester, they can start to taste the extraction and the differences that are going on,” Kwasniewski says.

Students sample what happens when wine is aged in large or small barrels made of different types of oak (Hungarian, French or American) or with various types of oak additives (chips, segments). They learn about how American oak has coconut aromas or French oak provides more mouthfeel and tannin. These demonstrations teach students to fully understand what steps they’d need to take to get particular flavor characteristics or qualities when making wine – and, by extension, what information to share with winemakers to help them produce high-quality aged wines. “You can talk about how it’s more tannic and smells like coconut, but until you sip that glass of wine, it’s a little bit hard to imagine,” Kwasniewski says.

The senior-level enology and viticulture courses see between 25 and 30 students enrolled each semester, which Kwasniewski says are great numbers for the amount of winemakers and grape-growers needed in Missouri and other Midwestern states.

After graduation, students who have enrolled in the program go on to pursue roles such as winemaking, vineyard management, equipment sales and other fermentation-related jobs, as well as at breweries or distilleries. Some students are even working toward opening their own wineries independently or with their families.

Pouring Over Lab Work

In addition to teaching, Kwasniewski performs a variety of tasks in his day-to-day work in enology. He orchestrates enology-research initiatives and facilitates any outside research within the program’s on-campus analytical lab. The lab is not just for students; it’s for anyone who wants to conduct grape and wine research through the university. And parallel to Kwasniewski’s position, there’s a viticulture program leader, Arianna Bozzolo, who does the same type of work on the grape-growing side of research.

Kwasniewski focuses on everything from grape development to exploring quality parameters and the underlying biochemistry of fruit development. A good example of the work he and his team conduct is the optimization of a new grape variety, which can take years. The GWI does everything but the actual breeding; however, Kwasniewski works with the only grape breeder in Missouri (out of Missouri State University).

Before a new grape selection is named, there’s a limited release of vines to commercial producers, who try growing it and share feedback. It takes five years for the vines to produce wine-worthy grapes, so their feedback loop might not close for a decade. If the cross proves successful in making desirable wine and is named, there’s still a lot of work that must happen to optimize its growth: assessing nutrient needs, growth habits, the best way to trellis and manage the canopy, the amount of yield, fruit quality and how to make the best wine out if it.

Take Noiret, one of the more recent grapes to be introduced in Missouri over the past decade. It was originally known as NY73.0136.17 when it was developed at New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, a division of the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University (Kwasniewski’s alma mater) from a cross made in 1973. It wasn’t officially released until 2006, more than 30 years later.

Although crosses are created often, no named crosses have come out of Missouri in any official capacity to date (although Traminette was developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). There are more established breeding programs in New York, Arkansas, Minnesota and California, and even with all of these combined, a cross gets named just once every few years.

Through the Grapevine

The institute plants not-yet-named, experimental grapes in controlled blocks at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC) vineyard in New Franklin, Missouri, which is operated by the GWI. Teachers and students make wine to determine, on behalf of the growers, what is suitable to grow in the Midwest’s temperamental climate: very hot summers, humidity, disease (like different types of mildew, mold or rot), and unpredictably low and high winter temperatures. Where many wine-growing regions might deal with just one of these elements or not have to intervene at all, oftentimes our region is up against nearly all of Mother Nature’s obstacles.

“Everything [in Missouri] transpires to be a little harder,” Kwasniewski says.

The research helps determine how a variety thrives in the region, how it should be grown here and what is needed for the actual propagation and supply to vineyards – essentially, it tells vineyards which grapes are worth growing and which might not be suitable.

Kwasniewski says that students who finish the program are not only prepared to grow grapes in Missouri, but can also use that knowledge to successfully grow grapes across the country and the world, especially in places where intervention is much less frequent.

HARC is one of three research vineyards the GWI manages. Each vineyard has its own purpose, and, altogether, totals around 6 to 7 acres throughout the state.

The HARC vineyard deals primarily in unnamed experimental cultivars where new breed-releases in the state or across the globe can be tested. The GWI has participated in the release of several named crosses in the past decade, such as Valvin Muscat, and within the past two years, Aromella, a cross between Traminette and Ravat 34.

Right now, there are 30 unnamed varieties being tested at HARC, and although Kwasniewski isn’t contractually able to confirm which, “There are seven or eight that are very promising,” he says.

The newest of the GWI’s vineyards, South Farm Research Center, is close to MU’s main campus in Columbia and acts as a demonstration vineyard for students to get hands-on experience. Here, researchers plant vines that have been successful in previous cultivar trials to look at how they can best grow in Missouri.

The institute recently received a couple of varieties from Germany after a quarantine in the U.S. The quarantine process dates back to one of the most devastating events in the wine industry: In the late 19th century, France’s production was almost completely wiped out by grape phylloxera, a root-feeding aphid that was brought over on American vines. Because of this, any vines from overseas must be quarantined in the U.S. before they can be tested to see how they survive in Missouri. Researchers like Kwasniewski test how viable these varieties will be, including if they can withstand sweltering summers and how they hold up against disease.

In addition to researching new grape varieties, the GWI also focuses a lot of its research at South Farm on grape varietals that are already popular in Missouri, like Chambourcin, Traminette, Norton and Vidal Blanc as well as at its third vineyard, Southwest Center, in Mount Vernon, Missouri. The GWI is developing better methods of processing and making wine from the grapes to share with wineries.

The Southwest Center vineyard is filled with Chambourcin vines to study factors like establishment of rootstock varieties (rootstock is a healthy part of the root used in grafting hybrids) and how rootstock and irrigation interact.

Arianna Bozzolo has been doing a lot of work with rootstock, including finding ways to mitigate the amount of water used to hydrate grapevines. In layman’s terms, that means it can limit the amount of water used on crops, leading to more sustainable operations. Bozzolo’s methods include measuring everything from the carbon dioxide released by the vines to the chlorophyll inside of one leaf.

The GWI is also studying how to limit pesticide use, and its work has allowed growers to do less manual work in the fields, as well. Its research does what growers don’t have the time or money to do themselves and has led the way in finding economically and environmentally sustainable practices for local vintners.

Under a Positive Influence

One of the advances Kwasniewski is proudest to have spearheaded since joining the program in 2013 is testing malolactic fermentation, which occurs when bacteria converts malic acid in the grapes and provides what Kwasniewski calls the “sumptuous feeling [of] red wine that [we’ve] come to expect.” The testing process to identify if that conversion has actually taken place is complicated and can require hazardous chemicals.

The GWI not only uses this testing and equipment for samples in-house but also for the industry – for a modest fee of around $30, versus the $100-plus cost it might be elsewhere. Kwasniewski hopes the testing will act as a gateway for wineries the institute hasn’t worked with yet to enter its extension program.

That was exactly the case for Larry Frichtel, the vineyard and winery manager of Lost Creek Vineyard near Hermann, Missouri. Frichtel’s father and uncle, Steve and Tom Frichtel, respectively, opened Lost Creek first as a vineyard in 1997, growing grapes to sell to other wineries and winemakers. By 2011, along with Larry, they got into commercial winemaking. In 2014 and 2015, Larry needed lab work on his wine, and the GWI could give him an analysis of how much sugar, acid and organic matter was in the juice quickly and at a lower cost than anywhere else.

Larry, who studied soil science in college and has grown 40 tons of grapes annually for nearly two decades, is confident in his grape-growing abilities – he still supplies many Missouri wineries with grapes. The institute recognizes his expertise and even invited him to lecture at a conference on the topic of Noiret grapes. Every few years, though, Larry needs a little guidance when it comes to winemaking.

Aside from the lab work for which he regularly calls on the GWI, Larry taps researchers’ brains for recommendations and to bounce ideas around – like what yeast will work best with a late-harvest Chardonel, a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, for example. The grapes have a much higher sugar content later in the season, which demands a particular type of yeast (yeast feeds on sugar to create alcohol).

“I hope other wineries start using the institute because I think if everyone in the state can make good-quality wine, then the competition will get harder, and we’ll keep making better and better wines,” Larry says. “Knowledge is the only way we’re going to get there.”

Not Crying Over Spilled Wine

The biggest difference Kwasniewski feels he has made is helping winemakers solve problems that could have otherwise resulted in dumping thousands of gallons of wine down the drain. The work he and his colleagues are doing at the GWI has made the difference between someone having a profitable year or not.

“There’s that level of helping get them started and continue going, and then as they run into problems, [we] have a dedicated team that tries to understand it,” Kwasniewski says. “There are new instances of disease, so having your own statewide team aware and in contact with the rest of the country is important.”

And even if the institute “fails” – by seeing a cultivar it’s tried to grow die or by discovering a treatment it’s applied to certain wine isn’t working after all – it has still succeeded by identifying these failures. But on the other hand, if a grower planted a couple acres and they died, or if a winemaker used a couple thousand gallons of wine with a bad treatment – they don’t get to try it again, or they have a limited number of times to do so. That might be it for that winery or winemaker.

Two years ago the GWI had excess Chambourcin grapes, so they made wine in eight different ways, including using the grapes to make dry rosé and freezing grapes to make ice wine.

“[The ice wine] was a bit of a failure; I would not recommend it,” Kwasniewski says with a laugh. “It took on a crazy color that wasn’t particularly appetizing, but it was a great experience for everyone.”

Although Kwasniewski considered some of the methods failures, the experiments and results illustrate how the institute can afford to fail in ways that local winemakers can’t, better serving the Missouri wine industry.

“If we have a loss, if we fail, it’s on us,” Kwasniewski says. “As a winemaker, you’re really trying to keep your business going, support your family and have everything [be] successful. We can push things a little bit to the edge – sometimes in the teaching element, sometimes with research – [and] it’s still a scientific success [for the GWI]. We can move forward and learn from that.”

Rising to the Top of the Barrel

Tony Kooyumjian, owner of Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery, both in Augusta, Missouri, and chair of the research committee on the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, says that a lot of the important work the GWI is doing is helping interested people enter the industry in Missouri.

“We want these people to get off to a good start and produce good-quality wine from the beginning, and we want to make sure that they’re educated properly,” he says.

Since Kooyumjian entered the business more than three decades ago, he’s seen the effect it’s had on the region’s wine, in both the short and long term. For instance, Kooyumjian says that in 1980 when he started, he noticed many local wineries made wine from juice grapes like Concord or Niagara. Now, local winemakers mostly work with French-American hybrids and other grapes developed by viticulturists.

“I’ve seen a change much to the positive in the past 15 years – progress has really accelerated,” Kooyumjian says.

And continual progress is not only great for his wineries, it’s also great for the region.

“If it’s recognized that the state is producing good wines, then it bolsters our brand,” he says.

Augusta Winery, 5601 High St., P.O. Box 8, Augusta, Missouri, 636.228.4301, augustawinery.com

Baltimore Bend Vineyard, 27150 Highway 24, Waverly, Missouri, 660.493.0258, baltimorebend.com

Grape and Wine Institute University of Missouri-Columbia, 108 Eckles Hall, Columbia, Missouri, 573.882.6656, gwi.missouri.edu

Lost Creek Vineyard, 21356 Gore Road, Marthasville, Missouri, 636.932.4142, lostcreekvineyardmo.com

Montelle Winery, 201 Montelle Drive, P.O. Box 8, Augusta, Missouri, 636.228.4464, montelle.com

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