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WSU Launches Search for World-Class Viticulturist

PULLMAN, Wash. — A search to replace viticulturist Robert Wample is under way at Washington State University.

“We’re searching world-wide for the best viticulturist to replace Dr. Wample,” said Art Linton, WSU Irrigated Agriculture and Extension Center director.

Wample, who was on the WSU faculty for 23 years, occupied the Chateau Ste. Michelle distinguished professorship. He has resigned to accept the Gallo Chair at California State University at Fresno.

WSU started the search for Wample’s replacement before his resignation took effect. Linton said this unusual move by the university signifies the importance WSU places on quickly filling the position.

“We’re doing a rank-open search. Typically we would fill a position with an assistant professor,” Linton said, “but in this instance, we’ll hire the best person even if we have to go to full professor to get them.

“The successful candidate won’t automatically occupy the Chateau Ste. Michelle Distinguished Professorship,” Linton said, “but will be given serious consideration for that position.

Wample’s research had a major impact on Washington’s wine and Concord grape industries. One of his major accomplishments was helping the industry reduce water consumption in irrigation by 30 percent to 50 percent.

The viticulturist also helped bring new concepts of precision viticulture to Washington, in cooperation with Sunnyside’s Kilian family. “We were first in the world to put a yield monitoring unit on a grape vine harvester,” Wample said. Results of this work, in cooperation with Harvestmaster, a Utah firm, are being closely followed by viticulturists in Australia, South America and other parts of the United States.

Wample also has promoted mechanical pruning of vines. He said Washington’s wine and juice grape industries both have a very progressive attitude. Growers are beginning to understand that mechanized pruning doesn’t mean less management. “It requires an equal or higher degree of management,” Wample said.

“Growers must have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. Operators need to be constantly paying attention to the bud count being left behind.”

Wample said many growers resist mechanization because of the engineering challenge. They can’t achieve the precision with mechanized pruning that they can by human eye and hand.

Wample said he believes the availability of skilled labor, and its cost, will continue to drive growers to mechanical pruning.

In an interview shortly before he left for California, Wample expressed optimism about Washington’s future in both wine and Concord grape production. Washington currently has a little over 24,000 acres in wine grapes and 25,000 acres in juice grapes.

The California industry that Wample is now serving produces 760,000 acres of grapes. The San Juaquin Valley, where Fresno is located, accounts for 460,000 of those acres.

Washington currently leads the nation in Concord production. “The ability to produce Concords in Washington will not be surpassed anywhere that I can think of in the United States, economically,” Wample said. “The potential for Concord production is outstanding.”

Wample also believes Washington’s future in wine grape production also is bright. “It is becoming very clear that Washington’s production of very high quality wine grapes is getting a lot of attention all over the world,” he said.

“Attention to detail by the majority of growers is contributing to high quality and recognition,” Wample said. “I expect that to continue and probably get better.

“Self regulating efforts of the industry to improve quality standards will only serve to extend recognition around the world.”

Wample says Washington still has plenty of available land to expand wine grape production. He thinks expansion at the rate of 10 percent a year “is going to happen.”

The general economy will provide the key to expansion. “If it (the economy) stays strong, I believe the opportunity for wineries to expand, or for more wineries to come to Washington, will make it possible for people who are planting grapes to have a place to sell them,” Wample said. “If the economy decides not to do so well, I would anticipate there are going to be some problems.

“But I believe Washington has a potential advantage. They (growers) are recognized for producing a very good value for the dollar. Most of the industry leadership recognizes that as well, and are trying very hard to improve the value. In the long run that’s a definite advantage,” Wample said.

He also praised the industry’s strong support for research and development, another asset for Washington.

“We continue to have a great deal of difficulty in our ability to predict yields and quality. An understanding of the environmental and management factors that contribute to yield variability and quality characteristics will be major steps in developing the ability to predict and manage,” Wample said.

Scientists and growers need a better understanding of how management decisions might influence yield potential and quality characteristics. Plant nutrition, choice of trellis system, irrigation management and other factors have small impacts separately, but combine to affect production and quality in larger ways.

“We’re having difficulty understanding how all these factors work together,” Wample said. “Enologists must take advantage of the characteristics that are in the grapes,” Wample said. He has seen major improvements in the last 15 years in understanding how to best utilize characteristics, such as high acid levels in Northwest grapes. Reducing irrigation and opening vineyard canopies to better sunlight have helped enhance color and flavor characteristics.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with the industry in Washington,” Wample said. “They’ve been very supportive. They have been able to come to mutual agreement on research goals and they have supported those research goals to completion.

Their success and the research we’ve been able to do is being recognized in the United States and some of the invitations I’ve had to speak outside the United States indicate that that success has served the interest of the research and industry in Washington.”

In California, Wample says one of his challenges will be structuring a brand new department of viticulture and enology at Fresno. Several faculty are being transferred from food science or horticulture into a new department, and there will be new hires in some areas.

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