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From the vine to the wine

Posted: Friday, Jul 13th, 2012

Professor Anne Fennell checks the growth of some grapes growing in the research vineyard at SDSU's N.E. Hansen Research Center. Fennell’s work has helped the wine industry in South Dakota thrive. Photo by John Kubal/Register

• SDSU researcher helps state's vintners thrive

BROOKINGS – "Grapevines have haunted my whole life. I grew up in southwestern Iowa. We picked wild grapes."

That fascination with vines and the fruits of those vines continues today for Dr. Anne Fennell, a professor of plant science at South Dakota State University. She's a researcher and a specialist in grapes and woody plants in the Department of Horticulture, Forestry, Landscape and Parks.

The work she does with grapevines, as part of a concerted effort with other researchers, has helped the wine industry in South Dakota and other parts of the Midwest thrive.

From picking Iowa grapes, Fennell went on to Iowa State University, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1979. While a student there she did a research project on cultivars related to grapevines. She earned a master of science degree in 1982 and a doctorate in 1985, both from the University of Minnesota.

During the course of her research project she "worked on potatoes and spinach, then went back to grapevines and then went on to work on corn bio-technology and was bored and went back to grapevines."

Fennell added, "The vine is a very interesting plant. It's just incredible. Vines have an incredible backup plan."

She explained that vines "have a totally different architecture than a tree. That's what you're working with. The grower has to manipulate architecture to get a crop."

Since she came to SDSU in 1992, she has had a key role in research that has worked its way to the grower and architectural manipulation.

'Developing the owner's manual'

"I started working with grapes right from the very beginning," Fennell said. While her primary duties involve grapes-related research, she does teach "fruit related horticulture classes."

Today she heads up an SDSU cohort that is participating in two grant-funded national research programs tied to her research in "vitis riparia" – a scientific term that translates to "the grape that's native to this state and is distributed widely east of the Rockies."

One of the two efforts, the Northern Grapes Project, is focusing on "viticulture, enology (a science that deals with wine and wine making) and marketing for cold-hardy grapes." Thirteen states are participating.

Putting it in simple terms, Fennell said, "What we're trying to do is to develop the owner's manual for these cultivars, because they are fairly new." (By definition, a cultivar is "a variety of a plant that has been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation.")

Continuing, she explained, "I approach research in two ways: One, things that are directly related to what the grower needs right now; and then my biggest goal is that I need to be ahead of them. Because these are long-term crops."

Fennell has "studied the biology of the grapevine and what makes it survive low temperatures, survive our winters. It's not just that January temperature that's a problem, as this last year showed."

Bottom line: "My research goal is to identify the characteristics, the mechanisms behind them and provide that information to breeders so that they can select better cultivars."

Don't think numbers of acres

Driving the research that provides information to the breeders who in turn make their recommendations to the growers is the Farm Winery Bill passed in 1996; it allows the making of wine in South Dakota for commercial purposes. Fennell testified in favor of the bill.

Prior to the bill, wine could only be made in South Dakota for home consumption. After the bill passed, commercial wine production took off: A graph on a paper Fennell wrote for one of her classes shows "Production of SD Wine & Excise Tax Paid" looking like the first steep upward climb of a roller coaster.

In 1997, the state's first farm winery made 230 gallons of wine. In 2011, 92,000 gallons of wine were sold; that generated $87,000 in state excise taxes. And estimates for 2012 totals are more than 105,000 gallons of wine sold and more than $100,000 in state excise taxes.

Today there are 19 active wineries in the state making unique wines that include rhubarb, chokeberry and black currant. South Dakota has more than 175 acres of grapes, and more acres are added each year to meet winery demand.

South Dakota wines vary from one winery to another, depending on what is used to produce them.

"We have wineries that produce fruit wines," Fennell said. She added that people tend to distinguish between "wine" being made with grapes and "fruit wines" made with something other than grapes.

In a state where farms are routinely described as having 1,000 or more acres in crops, 175 seems minuscule. But don't tell Fennell that.

"That's my pet bugaboo," she said spiritedly. "You can think of 1,000 acres, or you can think of five acres that employ five people. You can think of it as persons per acre; you can think of it in terms of how much of that money stays locally and how much of it goes to Minneapolis."

Laughing, Fennell added, "One of my missions in life is to let people know that not everything is measured in acres – though I put the acreage up there (in that paper she wrote for one of her classes)."

Instead, she urges thinking in horticultural terms of "intensive culture and high value per unit-area, as opposed to acreage."

A 'foot in the field'

As for her role in South Dakota's continuing story of the vine and the wine, Fennell stresses, "I'm a physiologist, molecular biologist, genomicist. I'm working at the functional genomic leve, but I keep my foot in the field and I keep my foot in the lab." She has dedicated greenhouse space on campus, where she can control research variables such as hours of daylight.

She explained, "We're focused on the fruit: how it develops, its profile, good characteristics and bad characteristics. How can the grower know when the fruit is ripe? Grapes are very difficult.

"They change color if they're red; they change color if they're green. But are they ready to pick?

"It's another whole group that's doing the wine."

Ultimately the high-tech findings can be passed on to the grower, who can then "look for specific things to be keying in on."

While she's not a grower, Fennell knows her way around a greenhouse and a vineyard. At SDSU's NE Hansen Research Center, she has a "small research vineyard" with rows of grapevines that cover about an acre – and where the vines and grapes are subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature.

In foot-in-the-field fashion last Friday about noon while showing The Brookings Register around the vineyard, she talked about heat, precipitation or the lack of it and the crows that fly in to feast on the growing grapes.

"I have to try to discourage them as much as I can," Fennell said.

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.

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