Five Questions for Jim Meyers
Jim Meyers has been working with wine grapes for 10 years, first as a Viticulture Ph.D. student at Cornell then as a Research Associate. Prior to coming to Cornell, Jim studied Chemistry and Biology (B.S. West Chester University of Pennsylvania), Computer Science (M.S. Brown University), and had a successful career as software technology entrepreneur. This background is reflected in his viticultural research which has focused on computational tools for mapping canopy and vineyard variability, quantifying relationships between variability and fruit chemistry, and optimizing efficiency of vineyard operations. Jim was recently appointed as Viticulture Specialist for the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program.
What inspired you to work with wine and grapes?
My initial interest in studying viticulture and enology was to change careers and explore the idea of starting my own farm winery. I developed an appreciation for food and wine during high school and undergraduate studies while working as a professional cook, and have maintained an active interest in cooking and wine since. But, as my study of viticulture progressed, my attention gravitated toward technical research topics and away from hedonic appreciation. I became particularly interested in vineyard variability - how to measure it, how it affects wine production, how to control it, and how to benefit from it when controlling it is neither practical nor desired. This led me back to computational tools and opened the door to exploring the rapidly changing landscape of applied agricultural technology.
From your experience what makes the New York wine and grape industry unique?
Diversity and variability. There are multiple distinct mesoclimates within the state ranging from the southern maritime environment of Long Island to the northern continental climate of the north country. Furthermore, eastern New York has a complex map of microclimates where the mountain ranges create a diverse inventory of farming sites, each with its own particular combinations of northern latitude, soils, altitude, slope orientation, proximity to the Hudson River and lakes, and natural windbreaks.
How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
There has been an increasing focus on precision. This trend is accelerating as agricultural technology continues to evolve. When I started working with vineyard variability just over ten years ago, many methods of data collection were largely manual and/or very expensive. For example, if researchers wanted to understand the variability of canopy density and plant health in a 10 acre block, they would need to spend days collecting tedious samples and still only have a coarse variability map. Alternatively, they could have hired an imaging company to fly over the vineyard with special equipment to get a more detailed map, but at the cost of several thousand dollars per flight and a long lead time. Today, that same several thousand dollars can buy a personal autonomous drone equipped with advanced multispectral sensors and used to make highly detailed maps, on demand, while covering hundreds of acres in a single day. Advances in analytic technologies have also made it much easier to quantify and compare vineyard variation from year to year.
What is your vision for your position within the Viticulture and Enology Program?
The past few decades have seen a rebirth of grape and wine production in New York State. During that time, regional identities have been emerging with some gaining global recognition. The best example is the association of Riesling as a signature variety for the Finger Lakes. From my perspective, eastern New York is just starting to explore its potential identities. As eastern New York wine production continues to evolve, it seems likely that new appellations and sub-appellations will emerge as microclimates along the entire length of the Hudson River Valley are better understood and their wines become increasingly differentiated. In my new position, I hope to help the industry better understand its diversity and regional potential by maximizing the success of each farm through research-based support.
What projects are going on in your program right now?
My biggest project at the moment is making the professional transition to Extension and getting to know the people, farms, and wineries in my new territory. In addition, I am currently working on tools to map vineyards using a combination of geographic information systems, some old-fashioned horticultural data collection, and high-tech field sensors including the use of aerial drones for remote sensing. I flew my first remote sensing missions in the Hudson Valley just a few weeks ago. It is my hope that these activities will lead to an improved understanding of the differences among microclimates in the region. In turn, that will lead to a better understanding of how best to optimize each farm, both in terms of cultivar selections and management practices.