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5 Questions for Ian Merwin


By Amanda Garris

Ian Merwin

Professor Ian Merwin joined the Horticulture Department in 1990 and was instrumental in the establishment of the viticulture and enology undergraduate major and the development of its curriculum. After more than twenty years in fruit production research, including biological control of soilborne diseases, soil management and nutrient dynamics, and cultural practices to improve winegrape quality, Merwin will retire next year to spend more time working on his family vineyard and orchards.

What  are some of the challenges in developing the Viticulture and Enology curriculum?

 The early challenges included developing a comprehensive curriculum for our new major, hiring the outstanding young faculty needed to teach many new courses, building and equipping a teaching winery in Ithaca, and establishing three vineyards nearby to provide ample hands-on opportunities for our students to practice and learn wine-growing. We aim to recruit about 15 top-notch incoming students each year and offer them a world-class education in cool-climate viticulture and winemaking. In addition to defining our place among peer programs at U.C. Davis, Cal-State Fresno, and Washington State University, within Cornell the major competes with other majors to recruit the best students among a fixed number of incoming students each year, because the size of each incoming class is capped. Being an Ivy League university with top ranked programs in food science, grape breeding, horticulture, applied economics, and other life sciences—in the midst of the thriving New York wine industry—gave us a substantial advantage in building the undergraduate viticulture and enology program. Our students come from every region of the United States and several other countries, and they are establishing a great reputation for the program as they make their way in the winegrowing world.

You co-teach one of the introductory classes, Wines and Vines. What is the scope of this class, and what is the most important thing students learn?

Wines and Vines is our foundation course for the major, but it is also very popular with students from the all of the Colleges at Cornell. In addition to our majors and minors, we have another 100 or so students in this class each year from other disciplines. We try to teach the class at a level that is interesting and accessible to students in majors such as Applied Economics and Management or the Hotel School yet still develops familiarity with the underlying life sciences. Enologist Kathy Arnink introduces students to the chemosensory aspects of wine flavor and evaluation, the basic methods for vinifying different grapes and wine styles, and the microbiology of fermentation. I teach the natural history of wine and grapes, the characteristics of major wine grapes that we have to understand to grow them successfully, the basic soil and climate requirements for vineyards, and how those factors vary around the world and influence wine styles. We taste several wines during each lecture, and perhaps the most important thing students learn is that making and enjoying wines is a fascinating and complex process that integrates diverse aspects of science and culture. This is a course that our students may actually remember and make good use of for the rest of their lives—each time they enjoy a glass of wine with a good meal!

What viticulture research projects are going on in your program?

My research program spans orchards and vineyards, but the basic focus in both realms is on interactions among fruit crops, the soil environment, and management practices. At present my main winegrape project involves the effects of cover crops (white clover, fine-leaf fescues, and native vegetation) on soil and fruit quality in a Cabernet franc vineyard near Ithaca. We are evaluating the impact of cover crops on microbial activity in the soil and leaching of nutrients and pesticides from the vineyard, as well as berry yields and composition, vine nutrition and balance. This research is part of a large Specialty Crops Research Initiative project that involves viticulture and enology researchers at Cornell and in several other states.

You've served as an advisor to fruit growers in Afghanistan. What is the state of grape growing there and is there a role for Cornell in the growth of their industry?

For five years I worked with other Cornell faculty, Afghan students and farmers, and the international organization Global Partners for Afghanistan, trying to help fruit growers reestablish their orchards and vineyards. Afghanistan had an important raisin and grape export sector before prolonged geopolitical and tribal warfare destroyed most of its agricultural infrastructure and markets. It is an intriguing but difficult country to work in. At times it felt like time-travel back to the Old Testament era, with some vineyards resembling those portrayed in Egyptian tomb murals!  Some high quality seedless grape cultivars are native to Afghanistan, including the probable ancestor of Thompson Seedless (Sultana). Its climate and soils are ideal for raisin grape production, and raisin grapes are one of the few crops that could compete with opium poppies for small farm income generation. The main limitations are political and economic stability and a lack of infrastructure for processing and exporting their grapes. Unfortunately, the political situation is so polarized there now that it is dangerous for us to work in the countryside and even more risky for farmers to be seen cooperating with Americans. This has made it exceedingly difficult for Cornell to continue its efforts in Afghanistan.

What are your plans for retirement?

I want to retire while I still have the health and energy to enjoy and expand our family fruit-growing business. We produce and market more than a hundred varieties of apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, blueberries and wine grapes. We will be applying for a farm winery license and hope to produce fermented ciders and grape wines to diversify our fresh fruit sales in regional distributors, local cooperatives and farmers markets.