’Tis the ‘Season’

This column appeared in the March 2024 NGRA newsletter.

Having welcomed spring this month, I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago involving the word “season.” I was talking with a computer engineer about a sensor that had emerged from an NGRA-initiated research project. The developers were planning field trials in five or six vineyards representing different grape sectors and grape-growing regions across the country to see how the sensor performed throughout the season. Only two prototypes had been manufactured, so I asked my colleague how it would be possible to divvy them up across the test sites, hundreds of miles apart. “No problem,” he said, “we’ll rotate them from one to the next each season.” An awkward silence descended. Then I realized that he (a technologist) thought we were talking about seasons on the calendar (spring, summer, fall, winter), not growing seasons—two very different timescales!

It’s easy to forget, when you’re acquainted with a subject, that others may not “speak the language.” Before I became fluent in “viticulture,” I attended my first academic conference after starting my role with NGRA and sat through a mystifying presentation on the “hydraulic conductance of grapevine.” I didn’t realize until the Q&A, when someone asked the speaker about irrigation, that the talk had anything to do with WATER—a word she hadn’t used at all in her remarks. Remember, although I had worked in the wine industry for many years, I don’t have a science background. But I do have a master’s degree in English!

In this example, the hydrology expert might as well have been speaking in a foreign language. In fact, from my point of view, she was. And to the technologist I was talking to in the first example, I was. Both situations demonstrate why efforts to improve science communication are so critical. USDA, for example, has committed to plain writing and even verifies it via an annual audit every year. And under the leadership of now-retired extension specialist Tim Martinson, Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology program pioneered Research in Plain English, or RIPE, non-technical summaries of journal articles like this one.

We all have our part to play in improving the grape and wine industry, but we might not use the same words when talking about it. So, when possible, be explicit…and know your audience!

Which brings me back to the word “season.” Most of us think of this season as spring, but to a grape breeder, it’s “crossing season,” the most wonderful time of the year. So, to our friends working to develop new varieties to advance the sustainability, profitability and productivity of our industry, season’s greetings!

Donnell Brown