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Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Bruce Reisch

Bruce Reisch harvests grapes in the vineyard. Photo by Elizabeth Takacs.

Bruce Reisch has been breeding new grape varieties and studying grapevine genetics at Cornell since joining the faculty at Geneva in 1980.  While his primary responsibility is in research, he also has teaching and extension responsibilities.  Program goals include the development of high quality wine and table grapes with greatly improved levels of disease resistance and cold hardiness.  Among the 13 varieties released by Reisch and colleagues, several have become important to the eastern grape industry: e.g. Chardonel, Traminette, Noiret, Corot noir, and Valvin Muscat.  Reisch was the recipient of the Research Award from the New York Wine and Grape Foundation in 1996, and the Outstanding Career Accomplishments in Applied Research Award from the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2011.

What inspired you to work with grapes?
At the time I was hired, I was a hungry new Ph.D. looking for a job!  So of course I would jump at the chance to take a position with Cornell University.  Having been a Cornell undergraduate in Horticulture and Plant Breeding, I was familiar with the programs at Geneva. In fact, on a serious note, I was greatly interested in wine as a Cornell undergrad (the legal age then was “18”), and took the wine course in the Hotel School when I was a senior.  I also traveled through the wine regions of Europe after graduating from Cornell and before I started my Ph.D. studies in Wisconsin.  So I considered myself a very lucky person to be on the job market at the same time a position in grapevine breeding was open.  I had no formal training in viticulture when I was hired, but was surrounded by the great expertise of faculty and staff when I started, so I tried to learn fast.

How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
So little was known about grapevine genetics in 1980.  Our program was successful in making crosses and selecting new varieties, but we knew little about how traits were inherited.  We now work with a plant in which the entire genome has been sequenced!  Since the publication of that first genome sequence in vinifera grapes (2007), the costs of doing such work have come down so far that within the VitisGen project (www.vitisgen.org), we’re working to sequence additional species.  Having this vast body of knowledge helps us to apply genetics for the improvement of grapes.  

In 1980, we focused primarily on combining cold hardiness with fruit/wine quality. Since 1990, we have added disease resistance to the list. We’ve gathered together multiple genes for powdery and downy mildew resistance (from a range of wild Vitis species) and have been stacking them together with our goal to create new varieties with long-lasting disease resistance...and along with hardiness and quality, of course.

What projects are going on in your lab right now?
With the “age of genomics”, and the resources of the VitisGen project, we are now applying “marker-assisted selection” to nearly all seedlings germinated every year.  The “markers” used are DNA markers, and their presence indicates whether an important gene is present or not. For instance, if I would like to make sure that every seedling has the “Run1” gene for powdery mildew resistance from the female parent of the cross, we extract the DNA, send the sample out for testing, and the results will tell us whether Run1 is present or not. We can do this for five or more genes simultaneously, in fact.  The results are available before we even plant our nursery, saving us labor and space over succeeding years.

Also, with the resources of VitisGen, a postdoctoral associate (Beth Takacs) in my project has been studying the genes responsible for black rot resistance, and a student in the program (Konstantin Divilov) has been looking for new sources of downy mildew resistance, and studying ways to make “marker-assisted selection” more efficient.

Our program is in the process of identifying some new wine and table grape selections for possible future release. There is a highly disease resistant wine grape selection rising to the top of the list, and also a very large blue seedless table grape with Concord-like flavors that is capturing some interest.

What is the one thing you hope students take away from your class?
I hope my students find a passion and pursue it.  I hope they know how to read the literature, find the information they need, evaluate it critically, and come to their own well-supported conclusions.  Cornell graduates must know how to think!

Has anything about the grape and wine industry in New York surprised you?
The rate of growth, and the rate of change has been phenomenal.  I’ve seen this state grow from about 35 wineries in 1980 to well over 400 wineries now.  The rise of the small wineries has had a tremendous impact, and the changeover to improved practices in the vineyard, better varieties, and better/smarter decisions in the cellar has helped this industry project a new, highly positive image.  I knew there was potential here, but I could have never predicted how forces in the industry would band together for their common good.  It all seemed to happen so quickly.

Bonus Question: What was the last wine you enjoyed?
A 2013 New York Riesling (it happened to be from Heart and Hands Wine Co. - yet there are many Rieslings I love)!  But don’t worry, I’m also a huge fan of hybrid grapes and have enjoyed the Goose Watch 2013 Aromella as well as the Hunt Country 2013 Valvin Muscat in the past couple of weeks.