By Chris Gerling
Alan Lakso joined Cornell in 1973. A professor of horticulture based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, he is a crop physiologist studying the interactions of vine development, the environment and cultural practices.
What inspired you to work with grapes?
When I was an undergrad pre-pharmacy student at UC Davis, I took the Intro to Viticulture and Enology class just to take a break from all the chemistry and physics. However, it was so much more interesting than what I was taking. I was pleasantly shocked to find out you could actually make a living working in such a fascinating area. So much for pharmacy school!
What are the major challenges facing the industry, and what are your goals?
Although there are many challenges, one real challenge for all growers, especially in our region, is the extreme variability growers have to deal with – variable soils, weather, fruit development, and vine growth at the vineyard and regional level. For example we have found as much as 12˚F differences in high temperatures within only 200 yards in a vineyard. We hope to be able to learn better how to understand what variability exists, determine how important it is to productivity and quality, and ultimately provide growers with knowledge and useful tools to deal with or overcome variability.
What research projects are going on in your lab right now?
We have a range of projects on vine physiology, but a current emphasis is on how to document and evaluate the importance of variability in fruit, shoot and vine vigor, soil characteristics, vine capacity (ability to ripen fruit), and vine water stress responses. We take several approaches including comparing pruning and training systems, remote sensing of soil variations, developing GIS information about site evaluation for growers, making mathematical models of vine growth and function, and even collaborating with nanotech engineers to develop microsensors to embed in vine trunks to let them tell us how much water stress they are experiencing.
What courses do you teach, and what do you hope students take away from your class?
I teach part of our Grapevine Biology class and teach an Advanced Viticulture class. In both classes I emphasize understanding the fundamental principles of vine growth and physiology and how they all interact with the environment and cultural practices. Weather, soils and cultural practices vary greatly but the basic physiology of the vine is the constant that provides a basis for understanding how vines behave under different conditions.
What was the best piece of research/viticulture/extension advice you have received?
When I asked our famous viticulturist Nelson Shaulis if he would have changed anything about his work, he said he "spent too much time learning how to grow grapes, and not enough time learning how grapes grow," explaining that cultural practices may change but understanding how the vine grows is fundamental to good viticulture in the long-term. Even though he did essentially all his work on Concord grapes, the principles of vine physiology he figured out are the basis of modern vine canopy management worldwide. I hope to continue to add to that understanding.
Chris Gerling is extension enology associate at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.