Growing Verona grapes organically in Pennsylvania

Final report for FNE17-881

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2017: $14,832.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2019
Grant Recipient: Mountain View Vineyard
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Randall Rice
Mountain View Vineyard
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Project Information

Summary:

We experimented to see if we could grow a new hybrid wine grape (Verona) organically or sustainably using minimal synthetic or organic chemicals to control black rot, downy mildew, and powdery mildew. Verona testing in Minnesota has shown the grape provides a trifecta of cold-hardiness, disease-resistance, and quality wine. We attempted to replicate the results in Pennsylvania’s wetter climate.

In April of 2017, we planted 2,000 one-year-old Verona Vines in a 3.5 acre block. We divided the block into two plots of 1,000 vines each. Each plot contained 15 rows with approximately 66 plants per row.The control block received minimal conventional synthetic inputs. We sprayed it with Mancozeb Manzate Pro-Stilk (Roper Range Shield) pre-bloom, immediately post bloom, and two weeks post bloom. The organic block received sprays of Champ Formula 2 Flowable Spray (Copper Hydroxide) pre-bloom, immediately post bloom, and two weeks post bloom.

In summary, levels of all diseases remained extremely low from 21 July to 6 October in Verona at this site, regardless of spray program. Despite very minimal fungicide programs, the maximum incidence and severity of downy mildew in the conventional ‘control’ block at any one point in the season was only 1.7% (5 leaves out of 300) and 0.04%, respectively, and for black rot in the organic block, only 0.67% (2 leaves out of 300) and 0.016%, respectively.  Disease development data collected during subsequent seasons, will help to better define the spectrum of disease resistance of Verona, and the suitability of this variety for wine grape production, at this site in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Outreach was in the form of 1 field day, consultations, including students from Northampton College in the vine planting, articles and social media.

Introduction:

We decided to study Verona vines because we are committed to sustainable farming techniques. The grapes that we can grow sustainably do not produce the popular European-style wines that drive wine sales. This grape could bridge the gap between earth-friendly production techniques and quality wine not only in Pennsylvania but across the northeast.  Currently in Pennsylvania (and throughout much of the northeast), high quality Vitis vinifera (like Chardonnay and Merlot) require frequent heavy chemical spays to survive diseases like black rot and mildew. Hardier grapes that require little to no spraying tend to produce unbalanced wines.

It was important to our farm to find a wine grape that we can grow sustainably that also appeals to consumer demands. 

Project Objectives:

We propose to grow a newly-released varietal called Verona (T.P. 1-1-34). Industry magazine Wines and Vines notes, “[Verona red wines] have a good balance between acid, tannin, and alcohol.” Additionally, rose wines from Verona have, “lush vinifera-like fruit, good balance and finish.” This hybrid could be the long sought-after variety that can change perceptions about Pennsylvania wine. Our objective is to find out whether or not we can grow Verona vines organically in Pennsylvania. We want to find out how the vines deal with disease pressure in Pennsylvania’s humid climate. Can they overcome mildew and black rot? Will organic disease treatment cause copper damage? We want to know not only if Verona will thrive in Pennsylvania but also if it will thrive using organic farming methods. We will measure the amount of disease and damage present on vines to reach our conclusions.

Introduction:

Farmers in Pennsylvania (and throughout the northeast) struggle to grow high quality wine making grapes. European vitis vinifera (like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) produce the most sought-after wines with the highest profit margins. However, it is difficult to grow those vines in Pennsylvania without heavy chemical applications, which are unhealthy for consumers and for the environment.

Wine consumers want farmers to find more earth-friendly techniques and reduce chemical use. A March 2016 study by Dr. Kathy Kelley and Jennifer Zelinskie of Penn State University found consumers are 47.9% more likely to purchase a wine that was made with “sustainbly farmed” or “naturally farmed” grapes. A 2015 Cone Communication Millennial Corporate Social Responsibility Study found 83% of U.S. survey participants responded that they would buy a “product with a social and/or environmental benefit.”

To meet this demand, winemakers have been searching for a cold-hardy, disease resistant grape that could be grown organically (or sustainably) yet also produces excellent wine. As part of the Pennsylvania Winery Association and the nine-member Pocono Wine Trail, we often discuss the issue with other Pennsylvania vineyard and winery owners. All have struggled with how to balance consumer desire for sustainability with consumer desire for bold, smooth, and balanced European-style wines.

Many hybrid varieties do thrive in Pennsylvania. However, none of the hybrid grapes we, or our fellow value added producers, have tested produce that sought-after high-end wine style. Most of the hybrid grapes that grow well in Pennsylvania produce highly acidic wines. We have found that they require chemical additives, sugar, and juice blending to become palatable. This has led the state to earn a reputation for producing inexpensive, sweet wines.

We want to change consumer perceptions. If we can grow vines with minimal environmental impact that produce European-style wines, we can take Pennsylvania’s fledgling wine industry to a new level, a level that supports job creation and increased economic growth.

If successful, Pennsylvania wineries can tap into a huge tourism market. Pennsylvania tourists love wine. The 2015 Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (PMVB) annual report showed wine-related tourism is one of the fastest growing tourism segments. The PMVB reports more than 25.5 million visitors travel to the Pocono region every year. Additionally, the Pocono Wine Trail is located within a two hour drive of New York City and Philadelphia. According to the American Community Database provided by the Circular Area Profiling System of the US Census department, there are 13,807,917 people age 25-65 living within a two hour drive of the trail.

Winemakers who we talk with in Pennsylvania and throughout the Northeast say finding quality wine grapes that can be grown using organic or sustainable methods seems to be next to impossible. Disease-resistant hybrids that do produce the desired body and tannin levels in wine lack balance.

In SARE project FNE12-754 “Cold climate grapes: Increased sustainability through improved yield and quality” the farmer noted,“The Northeast has been seeing increasing interest in growing these hybrid wine grapes, but the quality of the grapes grown has typically been on the low side due to high acid levels. The lower quality of the wine made from these grapes along with low yields has discouraged growers from expanding and stalled development of a viable wine industry.”  That SARE project focused on finding the best training method for hybrids but did not look into the type of wine produced from any specific grape variety.

The University of Minnesota has one of the top wine research programs in the country. Scientists there have created many cold-hardy hybrids, such as Marquette. Pocono Wine Trail members experimented with Marquette vines and found they pushed buds early, which was a problem with the late frost in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Additionally, we found the wine produced from Marquette grapes lacked balance.  Cornell University scientists have been working on this problem for years through the school’s New York Sate Agricultural Experiment Station. Since 1906 they have produced more than 50 cool-weather grape varieties. Pocono Wine Trail members and Lehigh Valley Wine Trail members have experimented with some of the newer releases including Noiret and Traminette. While some have shown disease resistance and grown very well in Pennsylvania, none have produced exactly what we are looking for. Most hybrid varieties produce highly-acidic wines. They require chemical additives or blending to achieve the balance consumers desire.

Cornell came close to what we are looking for when it released the Arandell hybrid at the Viticulture 2013 conference. Farmers have been able to grow it using minimal chemicals. It is cold-hardy and resistant to both downy mildew and powdery mildew. We found it to be much less acidic than other hybrids. While Arandell produces a good red wine with a pleasant blueberry finish, it lacks smooth, full body of the European-style wines our customers desire.  Cornell researches note they have not tested Verona but they believe it sounds promising. Verona’s breeder, Tom Plocher says the variety produces the smooth, full-bodied, balanced,European-style red wine we are looking for.  Plocher tested the variety in Minnesota for 12-years before releasing it to the public in 2015. His experiments showed Verona is a cold-hardy, disease-resistant grape. It is also a late pusher, which should help prevent problems that arise from Pennsylvania’s late frost.

Plocher did all of his development and testing in Minnesota. While the vines performed well there, researchers at Penn State say they have not been tested in Pennsylvania or in the northeast. Plocher’s distributor tells us so far no Pennsylvania vineyards have purchased Verona vines. We believe Verona may be the key to balancing the desire for sustainability with the desire for high quality wine. We found no SARE projects or University studies that examined the viability of Verona in the northeast or the potential for organic/sustainable production of Verona Vines.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Bryan Hed - Technical Advisor (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

In April of 2017, we planted 2,000 one-year-old Verona Vines in a 3.5 acre block. We divided the block into two plots of 1,000 vines each. Each plot contained 15 rows with approximately 66 plants per row.

The control block received minimal conventional synthetic inputs. We sprayed it with Mancozeb Manzate Pro-Stilk (Roper Range Shield) pre-bloom, immediately post bloom, and two weeks post bloom. The spray consisted of 2 pounds of solid Mancozeb mixed with 30 gallons of water per acre. We used an atomizer for precise application. This helped prevent over spray and ensure the application adhered to the leaf without runoff. 

The organic block received sprays of Champ Formula 2 Flowable Spray (Copper Hydroxide) pre-bloom, immediately post bloom, and two weeks post bloom. The spray consisted of 2 pints per acre during each application. We used an atomizer for precise application. This helped prevent over spray and ensure the application adhered to the leaf without runoff. 

Research assistants analyzed leaves bi-weekly throughout the growing season. Sampling for disease assessment took place in the outer ten rows of the organic test block and the outer 10 rows of the control block. This left five rows of each half as a buffer between blocks to account for any possible spray drift contamination. 

The team sampled five leaves on every tenth plant in each of the 10 rows per block. That was a total of 300 leaves per block. They used the Barratt-Horsfall ratings scale to measure the amount of downy mildew, black rot, powdery mildew, or copper damage that might appear on the leaves. 

At the end of the season, Penn State researcher Bryan Hed converted the raw data using Elanco conversion tables. 

Research results and discussion:

Summary of Disease Results in Year One
By: Technical Advisor Bryan Hed 

For control of black rot, downy mildew, and Phomopsis, the control block received 3 applications of a conventional mancozeb fungicide (2 lbs/acre; Roper Range Shield). The organic test block received Champ Formula 2 Flowable (2 pints/acre; Copper Hydroxide).
 
Applications were made pre-bloom and post bloom in 30 gallons water/acre. Sampling for disease assessment commenced on 21 July and was repeated about every one to two weeks for a total of 8 sampling dates. At each sampling, 300 leaves were examined in each block for the presence of disease and symptoms were quantified as incidence (percent leaves with disease) and severity (percent area diseased) using the Barratt-Horsfall scale (Horsfall, JG., and R.W. Barratt. 1945; (Abstract.) Phytopathology 35:655). Severity data were converted to percentage area infected using Elanco conversion tables. Leaves were also examined for damage from copper fungicide (phytotoxicity).
 
Black rot was first observed as a single small lesion on one leaf in the organic block at the first rating (21 July) and remained at very low levels throughout the summer. The conventionally treated block remained free of black rot throughout the rating period. On the other hand, downy mildew was first observed on 1 September, also at a very low level (a single lesion on each of two leaves) in the conventionally treated block; the organic block remained free of downy mildew throughout the season.
 
In summary, levels of all diseases remained extremely low from 21 July to 6 October in Verona at this site, regardless of spray program. Despite very minimal fungicide programs, the maximum incidence and severity of downy mildew in the conventional 'control' block at any one point in the season was only 1.7% (5 leaves out of 300) and 0.04%, respectively, and for black rot in the organic block, only 0.67% (2 leaves out of 300) and 0.016%, respectively. This is encouraging news and with such low levels of disease, statistical comparisons between blocks would have very little practical significance. Disease development data collected during subsequent seasons, will help to better define the spectrum of disease resistance of Verona, and the suitability of this variety for wine grape production, at this site in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

From the Farmer
These numbers are quite promising. If Verona Vines continue to do well, they can revolutionize the wine industry in Pennsylvania. Verona wine has the potential to be at least twice as profitable as other hybrid varieties. 

 

 

Research conclusions:

We aimed to prove that Verona vines could be grown organically in Pennsylvania. We believe this project showed that it is indeed possible for Verona to not only grow, but also thrive, using organic farming methods. 

We believe this variety needs further study, since the vines are too young to produce wine grapes yet. We hope to continue this project in 2018 to see if the positive results continue. 

 

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
7 Journal articles
2 On-farm demonstrations
4 Published press articles, newsletters
50 Tours
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

3 Farmers
8 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

College Cooperation
Students from Northampton Community College participated in the planting of Verona. We shared the project details and potential impacts with them. Many said they were excited to see a real world application of the organic farming techniques they learn about in class. Their professor kept them up-to-date on the project throughout the year.

Social Media/Blog
We posted details about the project on social media during the season. We also took photos and video throughout the project. We produced a blog post on our website detailing our efforts. Our site receives about 25,000 views monthly. We also posted the video on YouTube.

Tours/Field Day 
Twice weekly throughout the growing season, we held public tours of the Verona planting area and shared details about the research project. Thousands of people learned about the project in this way. 

Representatives from Northampton Community College, the Brodhead Watershed Association, and members of the public attended our field day in November. They learned about the results and got a look at the data collection charts and the plants. 

News
The Lehigh Valley Business Journal will be publishing an article about the experiment in the next week or two. The Brodhead Watershed Association is preparing an article for its next newsletter, The Penn State Extension will be sharing the project details in an upcoming email newsletter, and industry leading magazine Wines & Vines recently interviewed us for a report on the project. 

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • We gained knowledge of how a new grape variety performs in a cool/wet climate. We learned that while many farmers say it is impossible to grow grapes organically in the northeast, it might be time to rethink that.

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

We learned about growing Verona grapes.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project will help sway farmers who say it is impossible to grow grapes organically in northeastern Pennsylvania. The lack of disease present was remarkable. It proved to us that it is worth continuing to research new hybrid grape varieties. I’m encouraged to lead the way and help other farmers start experimenting with organic viticulture. 

If the vines continue to do as well as they did in the first year, they will help us to farm in a way that better protects soil and streams. We will also see increased profitability from being able to produce a European-style wine. This will help us to hire more employees and to boost the local economy. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Mountain View Vineyard’s farm team was incredibly happy with the results. The way our technical advisor set up the experiment and trained our team, worked perfectly.

We wouldn’t revise the methodology. 

Our study aimed to find out whether or not Verona vines can be grown organically in Pennsylvania. We proved that we were able to grow them and that they had minimal disease presence. 

We would like to gather data for another year to see if the trend continues. First year vines do not produce grapes for wine, so we aren’t ready to commit to a large Verona plot until we produce wine from those grapes.

However, the results are so promising that we are hopeful the vines continue to thrive and produce an excellent wine. If so, we will plant many more acres of Verona and encourage other farmers in the area to do so as well. 

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.