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Nov 28, 2013 4:21 PM by Juice Godfrey

Professor works to develop grapes for Wyoming wine

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Professor Sadanand Dhekney has a long history with grapes.

His family ran a vineyard in India.

Now at the University of Wyoming, he's working to perfect new varieties of grapes and encourage others to get involved in growing them.

Dhekney has been researching how to improve grape varieties for about the last 10 years, he said.

"What we're doing here is really fundamental in trying to get a grape industry started in Wyoming," he said.

Previously, his work focused on making grapes less likely to get diseases, he said.

"Growers need to spray 12 to 15 times a year just for fungal diseases," he said. "Our work in Florida was focused on trying to improve disease resistance."

Since coming to Wyoming, Dhekney has been more focused on finding or creating a grape variety that meets several specific conditions: having a short growing season, being cold-tolerant and being able to grow in acidic soil.

Despite the climate's challenges, there are some benefits to growing grapes in Wyoming, he said. The fungal diseases that plague grapes in other climates don't exist in Wyoming.

"Growers don't have to use fungicides here," he said. "The diseases need hot and humid conditions."

In some of his work, he is building off of informal research that had been done on growing grapes in Wyoming, he said.

As part of that work, Dhekney will field test grapes bred to grow in a colder climate.

But they weren't established for the conditions unique to Wyoming, he said. They were plants developed to grow in places like Minnesota and Nebraska.

"We're evaluating those," he said. "If you have a variety that grows well in Wyoming but doesn't ripen in time, then it doesn't produce the quality of fruit for wine."

The other side of the project involves spending a lot of time in the lab. He has been working with a group of UW graduate students, as well as students and faculty from Sheridan College, to create new grape varieties.

Many of the types of grapes winemakers grow have been the same kinds used since antiquity, Dhekney said.

Changes to grapes can take 15 to 20 years to develop, he said. The lab work he's doing shortens the time needed.

"We'd take a chardonnay (grape) that's been there for hundreds of years and use the advances in technology to improve the existing varieties," he said.

The work involves transferring wanted traits - like cold resistance - into grape tissue cultures that lack the trait. Then a modified plant can be grown, he said.

Transferring the traits at the genetic level can shorten the time needed to see them in the growing plant, Dhekney said.

"If you were to use the traditional breeding (method), it would take 12 to 15 years, and you still wouldn't get the product you want," he said.

All the wanted traits being transferred into the grapes come from other grape plants, he said.

"There's a lot of controversy about (genetically-modified organisms) and partly because companies keep it so secret," he said. "But what we're doing here is we're using the genes from the grape genome - we now have the technology to analyze these bits and pieces and tell what's useful to us."

The engineered versions do take some time, though, because they have to meet guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dhekney said.

For lab-created grape varieties, it could be eight to 10 years before there are tested prototypes, he said. It should take about five or six years to decide if the cold-tolerant plants developed elsewhere will grow in Wyoming.

But the ultimate goal isn't just a grape that is cold-hardy and ripens quickly. It also has to produce a nice bottle of wine.

In the lab, Dhekney works with some faculty members from Sheridan College, along with students doing work that ranges from graduate level to high school science fair projects.

The mood of the lab can be lighthearted, Sheridan instructor Daniel Bergey said.

"One thing that's very refreshing is he's got a great sense of humor," Bergey said. "He's got very good interpersonal skills, and that makes a big difference when you're doing research and locked in a lab."

The ability to collaborate between academic institutions also allows the project to act as a gateway to interest students in science, Bergey said.

"This is really novel in a lot of ways," he said. "We hope that it spreads and that it sets a precedent."

Several of the students working in the lab said they enjoy the chance to do research and to be part of the lab's family.

"It's a really cool dynamic," Sheridan student Braxton Tyree said. "He does emphasize a family basis inside and outside the lab."

But, he added, the calm atmosphere also has been academically stimulating.

"He's very enthusiastic and patient," Tyree said. "Because of how enthusiastic he is, I've learned more in the past few months than in semesters of class and he has no problem teaching you every step of the way, from the molecular work to the field testing."

Graduate student Raju Kandel agreed.

"From an advising point of view, he's a very good adviser," Kandel said. "He has good advice on the research side too."

In addition to working with students, Dhekney also advises some Wyoming grape growers through the extension office. He currently is the Whitney Endowed Assistant Professor of Horticulture with the Sheridan research and extension center.

"We work very closely with grape growers in the state," he said. "We tried to figure out what the real problems in the state are."

He said he also wants to see if the challenges growers face are the same throughout the state.

He has asked some to help him with later field tests, including fermenting trial bottles of wine, he said.

Some growers said Dhekney has been helpful and provided them with a lot of information to improve their work.

"I'm so grateful that he's there with that expertise," grower Annie Mueller said. "He's been very helpful with his guidance and suggestions."

Several growers are already using some of the more well-known cold-hardy varieties of grapes. But some said they are looking forward to the possibility of more Wyoming-friendly varieties.

"We hope to have him stick around," Mueller said.

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