By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor
Photo at right shows the Data Layers map on NYVineyardSite.org; below is Professor Alan Lakso, courtesy Cornell
That decision, of course, is what grapes to plant, and where.
With support from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, Cornell has launched an ambitious program and website dedicated to that pursuit. The site is NYVineyardSite.org.
"We're seeing more people who want to get away from the corporate grind," professor Alan Lakso told me. "They sort of get caught up in the romance of starting a vineyard. Our goal is to help them make the best decisions before a few years have passed and they're looking around, asking what might have gone wrong. Because at that point we often have to say, 'There's not much you can do here. Plant somewhere else.'"
Lakso, along with his colleague Tim Martinson and other members of the Cornell staff, have to tell surprised winery owners the hard truth. Undoing a mistake can cost tens of thousands of dollars and many years. "You can waste a good site with the wrong variety, and you can waste good varieties on the wrong site," Lakso said.
The website's most valuable tool is the interactive map, which is easy to use even for those with no scientific background. It can be used to show color-coded temperature shading, showing which parts of a particular region are more likely to see temperatures fall below -5 degrees farenheit, or -10, or -15. It can also show the average growing degree days for given areas, or slope, or drainage.
It's cool stuff. If you're into that sort of thing, it's extremely cool stuff.
But it has a long way to go.
"Our eventual goal is to allow users to click on a variety, like cabernet sauvignon," Lakso explained. "Then the map would show the conditions necessary to grow consistently good or ripe cabernet. The map would reveal where these conditions converged, indicating where a new cabernet vineyard would be likely to be successful."
Even in the Finger Lakes, I asked?
"Sure, there are sites for it," Lakso said. "Far fewer sites for it than we'd find for riesling, but that doesn't mean cabernet can't succeed in the Finger Lakes. And the website will be designed to reveal those locations."
To get to that point, Cornell has a great deal more research to do. And they'll need to use more advanced technology to improve the map details. For now, the map is not nearly as specific as Lakso would like to see.
For example, Lakso explained that the so-called "Banana Belt" does exist. That refers to the southeast side of Seneca Lake, where growers like to say a combination of factors makes for slightly warmer sites. "To an extent, it's true," Lakso told me. "A major factor is wind, which can blow straight down the lake from the north in the winter, emptying out around Hector. If the wind shifts, as it can, that warm air is gone. But they tend to get that warm winter wind off the lake, which is protective."
So why, I wondered, doesn't the "Banana Belt" show up more visibly on the map?
"Right now, the map reflects a measurement of blocks of area, and they're rather large," Lakso said. "We're talking about three miles. Do you know how much can change in three miles? I've seen one single vineyard with six degrees difference from simply the top to the bottom. That's not uncommon. But the current map can't reflect that."
Cornell has 90 temperature sensors that can take updated readings every 30 minutes, but Lakso is hoping for more advanced aerial imaging, too. Improving the map will require more funding, and Foundation president Jim Trezise, who calls this one of his all-time favorite projects, is pushing hard for it.
"Alan’s project was by far the most costly," Trezise said regarding the decision to pursue it several years ago, "but also a great investment in terms of growing the industry and improving quality. The concept was to use modern, space-age technology to save current and prospective industry members a lot to time, effort and money."
So is it working? Trezise said that it's hard to get a perfect gauge for how many growers have used the site, but he expects it's significant already. "They can do 90% of the necessary exploration on their computer with a cup of green tea on a Sunday morning," he said.
Cornell takes no position on a single best or warmest site for grape growing. Decades ago, Hermann Wiemer communicated with such luminous figures as Dr. Nelson Shaulis. Records indicate that Cornell was pursuing the question of the warmest sites as early as the 1960s, and Hermann's communications indicated that a site on the west side of Seneca offered the most heat. That site is in Dresden, and a look at the new Cornell imaging map gives clues as to why. That warm winter air that Lakso described gliding down the lake runs into a nose of land that protrudes from the west side. That's Dresden. Then, looking west, there are no other bodies of water for many miles, so in the summer the warm air arrives in Dresden uninterrupted.
For this writer, it's a clue as to why the Dresden vineyards were able to withstand the infamous Christmas Massacre in the early 1980s, when so many other vinifera sites lost everything to a huge shift in temperature and extreme cold.
These days, Lakso wouldn't be interested in declaring one site or another as superior. Rather, he wants to find the sites that are superior for certain varieties of grapes. "We've already spoken to one grower who was going to plant pinot noir up their hillside, but looked at the website and realized that would be a bad idea!" Lakso said.
But without further funding, the website project could stall. "For 2011, there are more than $1 million in funding requests for very worthwhile projects, and less than $100,000 of private sector funds," Trezise explained. "The projects that don’t get funding won’t get done, a loss to the researchers and the industry. The researchers need to do something, so they might turn to other crops or, perish the thought, go to other universities."
Lakso has no plans to go anywhere else, but he'd like to see this project completed by the end of this year. The need, he explained, is greater than ever. And part of the reason is climate change, which one might assume would make it easier to grow grapes in places like the Finger Lakes.
"Not necessarily," Lakso said. "Summers have seen very little change over 30 years. But winters are getting milder. That's the biggest difference."
So why wouldn't that automatically benefit growers?
"Climate change brings more erratic weather, and that's potentially a problem. Wild swings in temperature can be devastating, even if temperatures don't fall as far as they once did. If we get more of those warm stretches during the winter, some vines could begin to lose their winter hardiness."
The moment when things started to sound ominous, Lakso smiled. "Climate is what you expect, but weather is what you get. And we get something a little different every year. We're doing our best to understand it, and if you ask me, that's fun."