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Industry Focus

30 Years of Fruitful Collaboration: The New York Wine & Grape Foundation and Cornell 

By Alex Koeberle

As the New York State wine industry continues to grow so does the demand for research and extension.  Since its founding in 1985, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation has closely collaborated with Cornell University and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to support research and extension addressing these industry needs.

Name any production practice – from vineyard mechanization and pest management to selecting which varieties are planted, how they are vinified, and how they are marketed and promoted.  All of these production methods have come a long way since 1985.  The technical support that Cornell and the Foundation provide in the form of research, education, and promotion helps producers make more informed business decisions.  This thirty-year partnership continues to provide a key role in transforming the industry and fostering its growth and sustainability.

The New York Wine & Grape Foundation (NYWGF) is a non-profit trade association that provides valuable resources and information to local industry members.  It accomplishes this through a promotion program that focuses on expanding the market for New York wines, and a research program focusing on all aspects of grape and wine production in New York.  Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) support this research component with viticulture and enology experts.

While the New York wine industry is growing at extraordinary rates today this was not the case in 1985, the year NYWGF was created.  Faced with a crippling industry economy, Jim Trezise, founder and president of NYWGF, was contacted by then-Governor Mario M. Cuomo to find solutions for New York’s wine industry.  Governor Cuomo quickly signed many of Trezise’s proposals into law, including increased industry collaboration, marketing support in the state and beyond, as well as centralized promotion and research.  These pillars support NYWGF today celebrating its 30-year anniversary, with Trezise still serving as president. 

“We have helped many [grape growers and wine makers] get started with information, provided guidance and help to even more on complicated regulatory issues, and given them incredibly valuable information through research by Cornell and CCE,” said Trezise. 

A significant amount of state funding for NYWGF at its inception (and still today) was allocated to Cornell University and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York to provide more centralized and innovative research responsive to industry needs.  Much of this funding provides matching support for research proposals funded through industry groups such as the grape production research fund, Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, Inc. (a processor group that contributes voluntary tonnage-based assessment on Concord and Niagara grapes from the Lake Erie region), The Long Island Wine Council, New York State Wine Grape Growers, and individual wineries.

Impacts of this research often result from sustained support over many years. A new grape variety can take decades to develop, but provide lasting economic impact.  Cayuga White, Traminette, Valvin Muscat, and Noiret  - developed by researchers at Cornell – have had widespread success.  From vine to glass Cayuga White alone produces over $20 million in annual revenue.  Other Foundation-supported projects address factors such as harsh winters, disease and insect pests, weed management, and short growing seasons that are perennial challenges for grape production in New York.

In turn, Cornell Cooperative Extension communicates this research information to help grape growers and wine makers make more informed decisions.  One form of extension is CCE’s Veraison to Harvest, an annual data-based harvest electronic newsletter issued weekly during the fall, funded by NYWGF.   

A major outcome from industry and NYWGF supported research and subsequent extension includes adopting mechanical crop thinning and crop estimation by the Concord industry.  This project resulted from 20 years of sustained funding, and its successful implementation led to $9.5 million in net revenue in the Lake Erie region.  

“I [work with] colleagues from around the country, and the respect for Cornell is universal,” Trezise said.  “Cornell has been a major partner in our industry’s success.” 

According to Thomas Burr, former Director of NYSAES and Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, NYWGF members take an active interest in the research and extension programs conducted and offered by Cornell.  Members utilize research in their business decisions.  They have actively contributed to research with funding, collaboration with fieldwork, and even providing land and materials. 

“These strong collaborations have allowed for significant accomplishments in development of new varieties, in vineyard production, and in enhanced quality of New York wines,” said Burr.

Today there are over 400 wineries in New York, compared to 54 in 1985.  New York wineries alone attract over five million visitors annually, while the wine and grape industry in general generates roughly $5 billion annually to the state economy.  Wine Enthusiast Magazine recognized this remarkable growth and tireless efforts by industry members when it chose New York State as Wine Region of the Year in 2014, a global accomplishment.

“I believe the future of the New York State wine industry is very bright [as the] number of wineries grows and New York wine quality continue to be globally recognized as excellent,” Burr said.

In addition, winery families that have been in New York for generations continue to expand knowledge in the industry.  These families help newer wineries and act as true partners with Cornell research and extension programs, said Burr. 

Cornell support through research and extension is critical to the New York grape and wine industry, especially as the workforce expands and transforms.  For example, the undergraduate Viticulture and Enology program trains future grape growers, wine makers, and other industry members.  Students have access to on-campus research facilities including a new student teaching winery, as well as local vineyards and wineries in the Finger Lakes.  Additionally, faculty works closely with local industry whether through research or extension.  The NYWGF continues to strongly support the need and value of research and promotes this throughout the industry.

According to Trezise, the NYWGF and Cornell partnership’s greatest accomplishments include huge quality improvements, increased industry collaboration, gravitation toward the grapes and wines suited for New York’s regions (both viticulturally and economically), and pervasive pride among industry members.

“I am most proud of the many people who have worked together to make these things happen, and to have been a small part of it,” said Trezise who plans to transfer leadership of NYWGF at the end of 2016.

“Jim Trezise is a tireless, dedicated leader for the industry.  He is a strategic thinker who always has the interests of the New York industry in mind,” said Burr.  “The New York wine and grape industries have prospered under his leadership not only with growth in numbers, but more important with global recognition of quality.”

As Trezise says, “Diversity is our strength.  Unity is our power.”  With an industry as diverse as New York State itself, NYWGF and Cornell will be there along the way.

Alex Koeberle ’13 is a writer and managing editor for Appellation Cornell. 

Additional examples of Cornell projects supported by industry and NYWGF funding include: