Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Rootstocks, Rock Docs, Biofuel Stocks

Posted by | April 11, 2012

Can Washington Growers Use Rootstocks and Maintain Fruit and Wine Quality?

An international group of researchers examines the research vineyard at WSU's Irrigated Agriculture research and Extension Center in Prosser. Photo: Washington State University; high resolution versions available upon request.
An international group of researchers examines the research vineyard at WSU's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Photo: Washington State University; high resolution versions available upon request.

Almost all wine grapes grown in Washington are grown on their own roots. That’s unusual. In most of the world’s other major wine regions, grapes are grown on grafted rootstock. That is, varietal scions (the part of the plant that produces the leaves, buds, and fruit) are grafted onto rootstocks resistant to phylloxera (a tiny sap-sucking insect) and nematodes (microscopic worms that may attack the roots of vines). For a variety of reasons–mostly unknown–Washington vineyards have not yet been plagued with phylloxera and nematodes. The operative word being yet.

The spectre of a vine-destroying invasion has been lurking in the shadows of Washington vineyards for years. What if, wine industry professionals have fretted, growers did have to start using rootstocks in order to beat the insects and worms? Would grafting affect wine quality? Are Washington wines great in part because their grapes grow on own-rooted vines

Technicians at the WSU research winery in Prosser bottling wine made from grapes grown on scion's grown on rootstocks commonly used in commercial-scale vineyards. Photo: Washington State University; higher resolution versions available upon request.
Technicians at the WSU research winery in Prosser bottling wine made from grapes grown on scion's grown on rootstocks commonly used in commercial-scale vineyards. Photo: Washington State University; higher resolution versions available upon request.

Answers to those questions required a monumental, multi-year effort on the part of Washington State University researchers. A team of scientists led by WSU viticulturist Markus Keller just completed a set of projects that their predecessors began in 1999, with results published in a pair of papers in the March issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.

“The short answer,” said Keller, the Chateau Ste. Michelle Professor of Viticulture based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, “is don’t be afraid of rootstocks.”

Enologist Jim Harbertson, an associate professor also based at the Prosser station and a cooperator in the study, agreed. “The big push back against grafted rootstocks in Washington has been the fear that wine quality won’t be as good. But what we saw is that, for all practical purposes, there is no difference.

Keller pointed out that since Washington growers use deficit irrigation (controlled amounts of water) to manage vine vigor, there were also no differences in canopy size. “Water deficit overrides any vigor-promoting influence a rootstock might exert in wetter climates.” In other words, growers will be able to continue using the vineyard management techniques they’ve already mastered, even if they grow grafted vines.

“It’s the climate, not the rootstock,” Keller said, referring to Washington’s excellent reputation for producing high-quality fruit. “The differences we did see over the course of this experiment had to do with vintage.” Both scientists said that their multi-year experiment confirms that scion, vineyard location, and vintage are the driving factors of grape and wine quality, and acknowledged that this is something growers and winemakers already know. “We just need to be reminded once in a while.”

Read the full story in the latest issue of Voice of the Vine at http://bit.ly/HgKwR5.

–Brian Clark

Welcome to Plant Rock Doc

Planet Rock Doc features the best of E. Kirsten Peters' weekly, nationally syndicated column on science-related topics.
Planet Rock Doc features the best of E. Kirsten Peters' weekly, nationally syndicated column on science-related topics.

In 2004, E. Kirsten Peters, a geologist-turned-newspaper-reporter in Pullman, started writing a monthly column on local rocks and fossils, pulling from her extensive field experience in the area. Today that column has grown in scope and become the nationally syndicated “Rock Doc,” distributed twice per month to more than 100 newspapers across the country and read by hundreds of thousands of readers. Washington State University Press has just published a collection of Peters’ favorite columns as Planet Rock Doc: Nuggets from Explorations of the Natural World.

Peters originally wrote about geology, but the topics of her folksy and highly informative columns have evolved to encompass energy, agriculture, engineering, climate and more. Peters follows the course of her own curiosity and a desire to share what she learns about the natural world with the general public—what she calls her self-assigned job of science outreach.

“My unshakable belief is that there’s really nothing terribly difficult in understanding much of science, at least not if a person has a willing guide to it,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “I try to be such an escort for the public because I believe that citizens are better off when both the natural world and scientists themselves are as demystified as they can be.

“In an era when our national economy and our personal lives are shaped by science and technology, everyone deserves the best chance possible at understanding how empirical work proceeds, how it is funded and what it’s likely to discover next.”

Peters’ commitment to translating technical research for people everywhere spurred her to seek a larger readership for the column in 2009, aided in large measure by her assistant, Susan Bentjen. Bentjen wrote to newspaper editors in the Pacific Northwest and eventually throughout the United States, enclosing copies of the column and inquiring about their interest in running it. A website (http://rockdoc.wsu.edu) soon followed and, more recently, recorded audio versions for Northwest Public Radio.

“We knew we had reached a plateau in our need to publicize the Rock Doc column to newspapers when editors started to come on their own to our website and use content posted there–as all papers are always welcome to do at any time as long as they credit Washington State University and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences,” Peters said.

Peters’ favorite columns are “all the ones about my dog and the pickup truck,” she said. Her faithful canine companion, Buster Brown, “dog of renown,” has appeared in columns having to do with biology. Her 1987 truck and its close call with overheating on a highway grade proved useful in explaining why scientists have studied engines and their importance to the science of energy.

WSU scientists and researchers also frequently help Peters make the hard-to-understand comprehensible in many of her columns. One of those, “Defeating Death,” discussed how wheat geneticist Steve Jones and plant pathologist Tim Murray have worked to change the gene that prompts wheat to die every summer, a first step to creating perennial wheat as a commercial crop. Such a breakthrough could save wheat farmers a lot of work in preparing the soil each year and replanting—as well as saving fuel.

“If we could prevent wheat from dying each summer, it would grow indefinitely, like the grass in your backyard,” Peters wrote. “Then we could harvest wheat without replanting. And this perennial wheat—with large and established root systems like grass—would be in our fields all year round, helping to hold our soils together through strong winds and hard rains. It’s a clear ‘win-win,’ as the young people say.”

A native of rural Washington State, Peters earned her doctorate in geology from Harvard University and her undergraduate degree from Princeton. She taught undergraduate-level courses at WSU for a decade and is the author or coauthor of six journal articles and two textbooks. When she’s not being the “Rock Doc,” Peters is developing and writing major grants for WSU’s Agricultural Research Center in CAHNRS.

Planet Rock Doc is available at bookstores or from WSU Press, www.wsupress.wsu.edu, or call 1-800-354-7360.

–Nella Letizia

Industry Leaders Gather in Seattle for Biofuels Symposium

Fuels derived from non-food plants will soon power jets.
Fuels derived from non-food plants will soon power jets.

Wood materials industry leaders from more than 20 countries will gather in Seattle this week to discuss the role of woody biomass for production of biofuels that could transform the aviation industry and help revive the economy.

Washington State University’s Composites Materials and Engineering Center is collaborating for the first time with the Northwest Advanced Renewable Alliance (NARA) to present “Managing the Woody Biomass Supply Chain – Impact on Your Business” later this week. The 2012 International Wood Composites Symposium will focus on global trends, competing demands, and opportunities in the woody biomass supply chain.

Researchers are developing methods of converting wood waste, like this slash pile, into fuels.
Researchers are developing methods of converting wood waste, like this slash pile, into fuels.

For almost 50 years, WSU’s Composite Materials and Engineering Center has hosted the annual symposium, an industry-focused forum for wood composite panel/engineered wood product producers, suppliers and researchers. With support from NARA, this year’s symposium will take a new direction by exploring the latest developments in the fields of biofuel and bioenergy as well as on wood and wood-based composite products.

Earlier this fall, NARA, a broad alliance of private industry and educational institutions led by WSU, received a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the development of aviation biofuels and petrochemical substitutes. The grant aims to address the urgent national need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets.

NARA researchers envision developing a new, viable aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest where forests cover almost half of the region. The project will also focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals used to produce plastics.

“Bringing researchers together with industry leaders at the Wood Composites Symposium is an important first step,’’ said Vikram Yadama, the symposium’s organizing committee co-chair. “We believe this is the type of public-private partnership that is essential for successful development of a biofuels industry and clean energy economy with a positive economic impact for the region.’’

Learn more about the research going on in WSU’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory by visiting http://www.wmel.wsu.edu/.

–Charles Burke