UF grape research aims to push wine, grape industries beyond climate and pest obstacles
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Research that could transform grape production around the world is under way in the heart of Florida.
And what University of Florida researchers are finding could give grape growers a way to boost production of the $20 million Florida wine industry with fewer worries from diseases that have long plagued grapes here.
In the current issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, a team led by biotechnology researcher Dennis Gray describes detailed methods on ways to genetically alter 19 grape varieties, including Shiraz, Merlot and Thompson Seedless.
The paper provides a virtual “how-to” for other scientists studying grape, and covers more varieties than previously published works.
Sharing the information will likely lead to faster development of disease-resistant plants that otherwise would take decades to create through traditional breeding, said Gray, based at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka.
“Everything that we’re going to end up with in grape could’ve been accomplished with breeding,” he said. “It just would’ve taken maybe 200 years to get there.”
Florida has traditionally been the nation’s second-largest state in grape consumption, both through table grapes and wines. But it’s also been hamstrung by its often wet and humid climate, as well as fungal diseases and the bacterial malady Pierce’s disease.
While the United States produced about 634 million gallons of wine in 2006, only about 1.7 million gallons were produced in Florida, according to the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Division.
Pierce’s disease has been seen from California to Florida and is spread by an insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter. It appears mild the first season but returns with a vengeance the second, killing the vines.
Pierce’s disease has left Florida growers with few options but the hardy muscadine, which has seeds, a less desirable trait in a snacking grape.
And that is where Gray believes his research team — which has perfected genetic modification to the point it has become routine — can change the face of grape production, both worldwide and in Florida.
The group is working on two fronts: Toward the creation of seedless muscadines and to boost disease resistance in other grapes, such as the more traditional wine-making varieties not typically viable in Florida.
Success on any front could lead to big increases in grape acreage in Florida, as well as help growers around the world who struggle with disease.
While some critics suggest that Florida has little future as a wine-making state, Gray suggests it’s too early to say.
“One thing people will kind of throw at us: ‘Well, so what if you can grow wine grapes? You can’t make the wine,’” he said. “And that may be true for some varieties — but there are 2,000 to test. So some of them will probably make wine here.”
Gray’s research now emphasizes cisgenic genetic modifications, which means using plant genes only from a particular species — for example, grape genes into grapes — to create an improved plant, such as one with heightened disease resistance.
Jeanne Burgess, vice president of winemaking for Seavin, Inc., the company that runs Lakeridge Winery in Clermont and San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine, believes the UF research will vastly improve the outlook for the state’s vineyards.
“If we could get a handle on Pierce’s disease, we would then have the option of growing a much more diverse group of grapes,” said Burgess, who has grown the UF-created Blanc du Bois grape for more than 15 years. “Then all of a sudden, our choices are enormous.”
For more information on Gray’s research, visit: http://www.mrec.ifas.ufl.edu/grapes/genetics.