Unquestioned Answers

At the GiESCO (Group of International Experts for Cooperation on Vitivinicultural Systems) Conference, held July 17-22 in Ithaca, NY, Cornell University’s Terry Bates gave a thorough and thoughtful tribute to legendary Cornell viticulture professor Nelson Shaulis. Dr. Shaulis’ legacy, Terry said, includes teachings and techniques for vine size management (he invented the Geneva Double Curtain trellis system in the 1960s), crop load management and mechanization (he helped to develop the first mechanical grape harvester in 1970). But perhaps one of his greatest contributions to grape research was his unique philosophy around science…and life. “We are mostly concerned about unanswered questions,” Dr. Shaulis famously said, “when we should also be concerned with unquestioned answers.”

I started seeing examples everywhere!

Three weeks earlier, at the NGRA Midyear Board meeting on June 26, another Cornellian, virologist Marc Fuchs reviewed his lab’s recent field-based confirmation that the three-cornered alfalfa hopper is, in fact, a vector of Grapevine Red Blotch Virus. Peculiarities of the pest’s digestive system—namely the related discovery that the virus must be present in TCAH’s salivary glands to transmit it to a grapevine, a trip through the bug’s guts that takes at least 10 days—had confounded prior studies. Thus, because much of the previously published research hadn’t given sufficient time for virus acquisition, it had sown confusion about the hopper’s role in spreading GRBV. Unquestioned answers for sure.

More examples abound. When I first got into the industry, I remember asking grape growers why they planted the varieties they did, why their rows and vines were spaced and oriented how they were, why they leaf-pulled (or not), why they sprayed (or not), when and why they pruned, hedged and more. Often, the answers were some variation of “when we established the vineyard, that’s how my neighbors did it.” More answers unquestioned—though to be fair, that was nearly two decades ago and a lot of those answers have been robustly questioned since then.

And more are questioned daily. One of the NGRA-initiated research projects underway right now is the SCRI-funded HiRes Vineyard Nutrition project, led by Washington State University’s Markus Keller. One of the objectives of the research is to take a fresh look at nutrition guidelines and sampling protocols. Many of the current recommendations for nitrogen, potassium, etc., for vineyards in California and beyond are based on the work of the great Pete Christianson of the University of California, including the seminal UCCE publication he co-authored in 1978, “Grapevine Nutrition and Fertilization in the San Joaquin Valley.” But the industry is so much larger, so much more geographically dispersed and viticulturally diverse now than it was 45 years ago, it makes sense to question the answers.

So, how do you know when it’s time to do that—to test the conventional wisdom, to see if new knowledge is needed? Perhaps when a mystery persists (as with TCAH and red blotch) or when the world (or climate or industry breadth and depth) starts to change around you (as with vineyard practices). Or maybe when you’re lucky enough to encounter (or at least learn about) someone with the prodigious curiosity of a Nelson Shaulis who inspires you to wonder, “what if?…”

Donnell Brown