Conference Nirvana

June may bring the start of summer and the longest day of the year, but its highlight this year was the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) National Conference and Climate Change Symposium. The two-part event was set in San Diego—a picture-postcard for the season. But despite what you might be thinking (boondoggle!), it was a fantastic conference. Yes, the location was terrific, but more to the point, the vibe was collegial and engaged, and the talks were excellent.

The conference sessions included everything from scientific breakthroughs (see Research Focus below) to potentially controversial (but gently presented) findings, and from what I call “failed experiments” (the brave and important exposition of hypotheses that proved untrue) to the beautiful basic research into what makes things tick. Legendary now-retired grape scientists (Pat Bowen, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, and Wayne Wilcox, Cornell) gave keynotes alongside legends in the making (Chris Gerling, Cornell, and Simone Castellarin, University of British Columbia). We learned about unique nematodes in Washington, table grapes in New Hampshire, new ways of solving old problems…and old ways getting a fresh look. We heard from grad students and postdocs, extension agents and professors, early career scientists and their experienced mentors.

Throughout the three days, there also was a kind of interplay between talks that forms a dialog of its own. For example, in one of my favorite symposium presentations, UC Davis’ Megan Bartlett talked about adapting stomatal traits to premium regions. Her work, done in collaboration with a computer scientist/modeler from INRAE, explores the genetic mechanisms that control grapevines’ most basic response to hotter, drier conditions, offering one unique and fundamental approach to grape breeding for climate change. Yet in an earlier talk, Elizabeth Wolkovich (University of British Columbia) suggested that, perhaps it isn’t new varieties we need at all—that there is much unexplored diversity and untapped potential in the thousands of grape varieties we already have. Days later, one audience questioner went so far as to suggest that, in a warming world, maybe we don’t need wine at all. To this, Chris Gerling rightly replied that wine (and grapes, I might add) are important to the foundations of our culture, traditions—our very humanity.

It was a wonderful, vibrant dialogue among the members of an academic community that values and respects different perspectives…and whose work ethic is undeterred by a sunny seaside setting. Kudos to ASEV Board member and Technical Program Director Jim Harbertson (Washington State University) and ASEV Executive Director Dan Howard and their respective teams for knocking it out of the park with this year’s events.

Donnell Brown