Spring Cleaning

Think back to 2017. Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. People traveled to viewing sites in the “path of totality” to witness the first total solar eclipse to cross the continent since 1918. Wildfires raged around the world, including in the western U.S. and Canada. Hurricanes ravaged Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. The #MeToo movement began. And I was hired as President of what was then the National Grape and Wine Initiative. (We changed our name one year later.)
That same year, our Board of Directors ratified our four research themes—genetics and grapevine improvement, natural resources and environment, integrated production systems, and extension and outreach. Each theme includes a set of robust research priorities, including these six top-line items:
  • Advance our understanding of gene function and linkage to important traits
  • Identify, establish and maintain high-performing, disease-free plant material
  • Develop integrated models for the utilization of key natural resources at the vineyard block level, including water, nutrients and sunlight
  • Build improved mechanization and automation systems to enhance labor efficiency
  • Improve pest and disease detection, modeling and control systems
  • Strengthen and support extension and outreach for viticulture and enology in America
These themes and priorities were intended to be evergreen, broad enough to capture critical research needs yet specific enough to inspire innovation.
Looking back to 2017, other than bud break inching earlier each year, it felt like things were status quo in the grape research world. But already, spotted lanternfly had landed in Pennsylvania vineyards and has since expanded its grapevine-loving presence to 14 states. UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services, the source of all California registered or certified grapevines, reported the first incursion of grapevine red blotch virus in its Russell Ranch Vineyard. The virus would eventually overcome the vineyard, and go on to threaten vineyards in Oregon and Washington. California has seen nine of the top 10 largest wildfires since 2017, including blazes at vineyards and blankets of smoke along the West Coast that affected fruit development and quality, and for raisins, drying. Historic drought has wracked the West, exacerbated by several of the hottest years on record. And polar vortexes have hammered the Midwest and Northeast.
The last six years also brought a leap forward in modern genetics thanks to CRISPR-Cas9, as evidenced by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. A revolution in AI and machine learning has brought these tools to bear on precision farming and is changing how we think about computing. Mechanization and automation now touch almost every aspect of vineyard management. Autonomous systems have introduced robots (many for research purposes) and driverless tractors and sprayers to vineyards across the country. Meanwhile, the global COVID-19 pandemic drove many businesses online, dramatically altering the way we work, disrupting supply chains, sparking inflation and continuing to impact our economy.
In light of what feels like unprecedented change, have our industry research themes and priorities proven as broad and resilient as we’d hoped?
Earlier this month, in a nod to spring cleaning, NGRA’s four Research Theme Committees began to test our research priorities against the challenges and opportunities of the last six years. The conversations have been inspired and inspiring. We’ll be distilling the results of this “priorities refresh” into an updated set of priorities for our Board to review at our Midyear Meeting in June. Stay tuned to see if/how the priorities might change!