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Vine Nitrogen, Women in Wine, V&E Benefit Gala, Washington Wines Top Best-of Lists

Posted by | December 17, 2009

WSU Grad Student’s Research Tackles Vineyard Nitrogen Puzzle

Catherine Jones (top right and bottom left) crushes grapes in order to make experimental wine at the WSU research station in Prosser. Jones is working on a master's degree and is investigating the role of nitrogen in vine growth.
Catherine Jones (top right and bottom left) crushes grapes in order to make experimental wine at the WSU research station in Prosser. Jones is working on a master's degree and is investigating the role of nitrogen in vine growth.

Getting the nitrogen right in wine-grape vineyards is tricky. Nitrogen is essential for plant development and growth.

However, too much nitrogen applied early in the growing season may result in overly vigorous vine canopies. A thick canopy, though lovely to look at, shades the young berries and robs them of the sunlight they need to form the luscious flavor compounds favored by winemakers and drinkers. But too little nitrogen later in the season can mean the grapes will lack the chemical oomph to develop their full complement of flavor compounds. Indeed, the fruit may suffer from atypical aging, a tongue-blunting lack of varietal flavors that affects wine, especially whites, as young as a year old. The wine begins to taste of (in the words of note-takers at wine competitions) “dish cloth,” “floor polish” and “furniture varnish.”

To make matters even more complex, vineyard managers aren’t simply faced with a choice between applying nitrogen early or late. The way nitrogen is applied – in the soil so that it’s taken up by the vine’s roots or via a spray so that it is absorbed by the plant’s permeable leaves — makes a big difference in the resulting grape quality. Add to that the fact that water availability makes a big difference in how fruit matures and you’ve got yourself a puzzle of hair-tearing complexity.

But the difficulties don’t end there. Viticulturists are often guided by tradition and intuition as they make their irrigation and nitrogen fertilization choices. Granted, these “plant whisperers” are often extremely good at making smart choices – just uncork a bottle of your favorite vino for a taste of viticultural success.

Into this labyrinth walks Catherine Jones, a graduate student conducting research at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Here in the heart of Washington wine country, Jones is attempting to untangle some of the complex relationships between nitrogen, water and wine-grape vines.

“There was a study done at Cornell a few years ago that suggests that atypical aging might affect as much as 20 percent of wines. That’s a serious potential economic impact,” Jones said.

The study Jones refers to was conducted by a team of researchers led by Thomas Henick-Kling, formerly an enologist at Cornell University and now the director of viticulture and enology at WSU.

Jones’ advisor, WSU soil scientist Joan Davenport, said that the Cornell team reasoned that nitrogen deficiency may play a role in atypical aging, which was first noticed in Europe in the 1980s, where it coincided with a dramatic reduction of nitrogen use in vineyards.

The Cornell team found that both water and nitrogen availability correlated strongly with reduced or delayed atypical aging.

Jones said her project replicates some aspects of the Cornell research, with new variations of particular interest to Pacific Northwest vineyardists. She’s working with both Merlot and Riesling grapes.

“I’m using both organic and conventional liquid nitrogen sprays, for instance, and applying those during véraison (grape ripening) to increase the amount of nitrogen available for flavor and other compounds. There is a lot of concern out there about fruit quality decreasing with increased nitrogen application (due to an increase in canopy growth). So a big part of my project is looking at canopy growth over the season.”

Jones’ work has just begun. The Bothell native earned her undergraduate degree in viticulture and enology from WSU in 2006. After internships in the wine industry, she decided she wanted to work in wine-science education, so returned to WSU for the master’s program.

This winter she’s analyzing her first season’s data, as well as collecting plant samples for additional analysis. Jones will present her project at the February meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. She anticipates finishing her research in early summer 2011. And when Jones moves her tassel from the right to the left side of her cap, we’ll report on her final results here in Voice of the Vine.

Women in Wine Collection

Laura Mrachek and husband Mike are co-owners of Saint Laurent Estate Winery. Laura Mrachek is the honorary chair for the Women in Wine Collection.
Laura Mrachek and husband Mike are co-owners of Saint Laurent Estate Winery. Laura Mrachek is the honorary chair for the Women in Wine Collection.

A new collection of wines donated by women in Washington’s winemaking and grape-growing industry, as well as woman business leaders, will make its debut on the block at January’s “Celebrate Washington Wine” gala dinner and auction. The annual black-tie event benefits WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program.

Laura Mrachek, a WSU alumna (’76) and owner with her husband Mike of Saint Laurent Estate Winery in Malaga, Wash., is the honorary chair for the new collection.

“It promises to be a sensational collection, and it’s sure to generate lively bidding,” Mrachek said in a recent letter requesting donations. “We welcome all vintages, varietals and bottle sizes (of Washington wines).”

The new collection is the brainchild of WSU alumna Cheri Brennan, a member of the gala’s organizing committee. All proceeds from the collection will be dedicated to scholarship support for women in the WSU Viticulture and Enology Program.

“Our annual CEO Collection of Washington wine donations from business and community leaders has been a longtime favorite at the auction, so adding the Women in Wine Collection seemed like a natural,” Brennan said. “There are so many women who are wine makers, grape growers, wine shop owners and business leaders who enjoy wine and supporting other women that I’m sure we’ll have an outstanding collection.”

International Recognition of Washington’s World-Class Wines

Washington State’s position as one of the world’s leading wine producing regions has been affirmed by two highly respected wine publications. Nine Washington wines were named to Wine Spectator’s prestigious Top 100 wines of the year, including five produced by Wine-by-Cougars wineries.

Eleven Washington wines made the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 list, representing more than 10 percent of the year’s top wines, including three Cougar-produced wines. According to wine writer and Enthusiast contributor Paul Gregutt, “this year’s list is the all-time best showing for Washington State on any national publication’s best-of list.”

Congratulations to Columbia Crest Winery and its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve for beating 17,000 wines from around the world to top Wine Spectator’s list as “wine of the year” for 2009. Criteria for the selection include value, availability and excitement.

“Seeing more Washington wine on the (Wine Spectator) list than ever before also proves this is no one-hit wonder, but that Washington truly stands out among the wine regions of the world,” said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission.

To see the complete list of Washington wines on the Wine Spectator list and learn more about how they were selected, visit http://bit.ly/6u4UiV.

The list of Washington wines making the Wine Enthusiast list and more information on how they were selected can be found at http://bit.ly/6Ld8Qp.

Ticket Sales Brisk for V & E Benefit Gala Auction

Tickets are going fast for the ninth annual gala "Celebrate Washington Wines."
Tickets are going fast for the ninth annual gala "Celebrate Washington Wines."

The ninth annual “Celebrate Washington Wine” black-tie gala and auction is only six weeks away, and tickets to the event are selling quickly. Attendance is limited to 200 people for the annual gala held in the intimate Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville to benefit the WSU Viticulture and Enology program. The event has sold out in past years, so make your reservations early.

The event features a reception, sumptuous gourmet dinner with wine pairings, and both silent and live auctions featuring a wide range of items and unique experiences. Proceeds from this year’s gala will primarily be dedicated to student scholarships and exchange programs, as well as for equipment and infrastructure to continue the program’s growth.

For more information about the gala, or to make reservations, visit http://bit.ly/79aNuw or contact Linda Bailey at 509-335-7772 or at lmbailey@wsu.edu.

Thomas Henick-Kling, director of viticulture and enology at Washington State University
Thomas Henick-Kling, director of viticulture and enology at Washington State University

If you want to support the V & E program but aren’t sure you’ll be able to attend the event, check out the new online auction. New items will be posted regularly for bidding until the gala is held. Check it out by going to http://bit.ly/79aNuw and clicking on “Online Auction” on the left.

Thank You for a Great Year!

From all of us at Voice of the Vine, happy holidays! It’s been a vintage year, and we have much for which to be thankful. Most of all, we are grateful to you, our readers, supporters and students, for making the science of wine a thriving enterprise at WSU and in the Pacific Northwest.

We’re breaking out our snowshoes and heading for the four corners of the compass over the next couple of weeks. We’ll return to our computers and our regular publishing schedule with the Jan. 21 issue.

Cheers!