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The transoceanic pull of the wine grape

The grape is a very influential fruit. It’s versatile in its use, dynamic in its variation, and even influential in bringing a team of 13 people from different corners of the world together in Prosser, Wash.

Burdet, Rocchi, and Yun bring their international experience and perspectives to bear on viticulture and enology in Washington vineyards.
Burdet, Rocchi, and Yun bring their international experience and perspectives to bear on viticulture and enology in Washington vineyards.

Leading the team is Markus Keller, scientist and professor of viticulture, who has been with WSU since 2001. Originally from Switzerland, Keller taught in Australia before coming to WSU. Thirteen years later, Keller works at the WSU Prosser Irrigated Agriculture, Research and Extension Center (IAREC), conducting research on the irrigation and management of vineyards. He now leads a diverse team of 12, including post-doc research associates, graduate students, and technicians from across the globe.

A change of focus

Some of the team was looking for a change when deciding to study viticulture. Berenice Burdet, a native of Argentina and postdoctoral research associate, already has a doctorate in neurobiology. She went from studying the human brain to studying the localization of sugar transporter genes in grapes.

“I wanted to change my topic of research,” she explained. “I love wine and studied enology for two years in Argentina.”

Last year Burdet attended a microbiology seminar in Seattle where the speaker mentioned Keller and his work in Prosser. She began reading Keller’s book and papers on viticulture and became more and more interested in the field.

Berenice Burdet
Bernice Burdet went from studying brains to studying the localization of sugar transporter genes in grapes.

Graduate student Joel Perez also found himself pulled into viticulture while looking to make a career change. He has a master’s degree in government relations, but decided to pursue his interest in fermentation science and is working on a master’s in viticulture. As a result, he spent his summer analyzing when grapes begin to lose weight. Grapes are often priced by weight, so understanding when the crop’s weight begins to drop can help a grower earn the best return on their crop.

He found the Viticulture & Enology program at WSU Tri Cities. A native of San Diego, he took a chance and moved to Richland. Now he is pursuing his Master’s in Viticulture and spent his summer analyzing when grapes begin to lose weight. Grapes are often priced by weight, so understanding when the crop’s weight begins to drop can help a grower save money.

“I love coming into work,” he said. “It’s very refreshing to be in this environment where there are genuine and insightful discussions.”

Joelle Bou Harb, a Ph. D student, originally went to school for chemistry and found that while she enjoyed the subject, but wanted to find her own niche.

“I was doing well, but found the subject too wide,” she said. “I wanted to specialize.” She went back to school in her native country of Lebanon and earned a bachelor’s and master’s in crop production. Her master’s thesis was on the irrigation of grapevines and she decided to continue pursuing viticulture because, “The wine industry is booming in Lebanon.”

Joelle Bou Harb
Joelle Bou Harb, a native of Lebanon, is pursuing viticulture and irrigation research at the WSU Prosser Irrigated Agriculture and Research Extension Center.

Bou Harb is working on the classification of 30 wine grape varieties into iso- and anisohydric behavior groups, a task that requires pre-dawn and midday field measurements. During the summer that means she’s up and in the field by 3 a.m.

Filling the gap

While pursuing her master’s degree in agriculture and water resources in China, Yun Zhang became interested in grapes and viticulture. She decided to pursue her doctorate in the United States and received her doctorate in horticulture from WSU last year.

Zhang is now a postdoctoral research associate on Keller’s team. In addition to helping advise graduate students, Zhang is working to contribute now contributing to current grape irrigation research.

“There’s plenty of research into the irrigation management of red wine grapes, but little research into the irrigation of white wine grapes,” she said. “Changing the irrigation can alter the fruit’s quality. I want to help growers understand how to best irrigate.”

Fruit cracking is a common problem for grape growers in high-rainfall areas. It is also the subject of doctoral student Ben-Min Chang’s research. A native of Taiwan, Chang is using the semi-arid environment of eastern Washington to an advantage.

“It doesn’t rain heavily here, which makes fruit water levels easier to control and monitor,” Chang explained. “Now I can measure how much water it actually takes to cause cracking.”

Nataliya Shcherbatyuk, originally from Ukraine, is a doctoral student on Keller’s team.
Nataliya Shcherbatyuk, originally from Ukraine, is a doctoral student on Keller’s team.

Nataliya Shcherbatyuk, originally from Ukraine, is another doctoral student on Keller’s team. Her internship with the Washington Tree Fruit Commission helped her decide to pursue a doctorate in viticulture at WSU. She is studying when ripening begins, how it happens, and how it differs among grapes.

“Have you ever paid attention to the way grape berries in one cluster ripen? They never do it at the same time,” said Shcherbatyuk. “There is something that tells each berry when to start and when to slow down. My goal is to find out what that something is. 

Visiting from afar

Letizia Rocchi is an exchange student from Italy, pursuing her doctorate in plant biology and production of cultivated plants at Milan University. As part of her work, she wanted to travel abroad for six months and selected Prosser as a good site for conducting continuing her research.

“I want to see what the difference is between a sunburned and shaded berry,” she said. “Sunburn can affect the aromatic compounds of the grape.”

Ulises Ruiz, from Mexico, is also visiting Prosser as part of his master’s work in viticulture. He has studied in France and Germany, but found that the research at Prosser more closely matched his interests.

“I originally was looking to study in California because it had a climate similar to Mexico,” Ruiz said, “but then I became interested in the research here. I want to learn more about the irrigation treatments that are not used in Europe.”

Ruiz is studying how different levels of water stress affect the quality and yield of grapes.

Although he didn’t travel far, Prosser native Ken Corliss found the change of scenery offered by the IAREC appealing. An undergraduate summer intern at the IAREC, Corliss is more interested in the business side of the industry, but enjoys helping the researchers with their work.. When he decided to study viticulture, he followed the advice of Joan Davenport, a professor and family friend, who recommended he contact Keller about summer work.

“I’m a practically minded person,” he said. “I want to make a product people like.”

A helping hand

Technicians at the IAREC are an integral part of the research team. Lynn Mills, the technician supervisor, supports the team in any way she can. She explains, “I help coordinate research trials and collect samples.”

A bit of a nomad, Mills grew up in Kansas, went to school in Wisconsin, and then travelled to Washington for work. She originally came to Prosser for genetic research in beans, but ended up applying for a technician position with the viticulture team, learning about grapes along the way.

Alan Kawakami
Alan Kawakami

Alan Kawakami was hired on the spot when he applied for a technician position. A native of California, he earned his master’s in viticulture from Fresno State University more than thirty years ago and applied for the position in Prosser right out of college.

As a technician, Kawakami helps the research associates and graduate students with their studies by collecting samples and assisting in the lab. He enjoys making an impact on the field of viticulture through the research at Prosser, he said.

A technology transfer specialist, Hemant Gohil works directly with growers to ensure their needs are being met by the research at the IAREC. Gohil, originally from India, helps conduct on-farm research with local growers to address their specific needs and is working on an extension manual to help growers conduct their own on-farm research.

“I didn’t want to just work,” Gohil said. “I wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Viticulture and enology are evolving fields of study and the need for research needed to address the problems faced by grape growers, winemakers, and wine drinkers varies. Many countries have a flourishing wine industry and growing list of research needs, which only the most passionate scientists can address. Keller, a world-traveler himself, has brought together a this team of passionate students and hopes that their travels have helped them grow and learn as researchers, and as people.

“I wanted to give others the same opportunity to travel,” Keller explained, “to broaden their horizons.”

-Emily Smudde