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Ohio Climbing Up in Wine Production
Ohio Ag Connection - 11/14/2017

Ohio has inched up in its ranking for wine production to the sixth highest state in the nation.

The state moved from the seventh highest number of gallons generated in the U.S. up a notch, just above longtime gridiron rival, Michigan. The number of gallons produced in 2016 doubled the total in 2012, according to a recently released report by the Ohio Department of Agriculture's Ohio Grape Industries Committee. The report examined the state's wine production in 2016.

"Everyone has always thought of California, Germany, France and Australia as wine-producing regions. It's becoming more evident to people that there are Ohio wines," said Todd Steiner, who leads the science of winemaking program in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.

Assisting the state's winemakers and grape growers are Steiner and other researchers in the college, including entomologists who focus on pests that plague vineyards, plant pathologists concentrating on grape diseases and winemaking experts savvy about the fermentation process. Across the state, all of them work with grape growers and winery owners to troubleshoot obstacles.

One of those challenges is achieving the appropriate level of sulfur dioxide, a preservative added to grapes and wine to kill or inhibit unwanted yeasts or bacteria and to keep wine from being exposed to oxygen, Steiner said.

Exposing a wine to oxygen or bacterial contamination can taint a wine's flavor, color and aroma and can occur at any point from harvest to bottling and wine storage. Oxidation can turn a white wine brown or a red wine brownish-red. Steiner and his colleagues have conducted studies on methods to control excess oxygen entry at critical points in the winemaking process. Bacterial contamination, for example, can make a wine smell and taste like vinegar, which is best kept in a salad and out of a glass.

Ohio's annual wine production has nearly doubled since 2012 to nearly 6 million gallons. Ohio wineries grew to 265 in 2016 from 175 in 2012, according to the state report. Still, Ohio's production significantly lags behind the wine-producing states of California, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon.

Part of the challenge is that more vineyards are needed to supply Ohio's wineries, Steiner said.

"We have so many wineries in Ohio now, we want to make sure there's enough accessible fruit on hand for the wineries," Steiner said.

As every grape grower here knows, brutal winters can be an obstacle, such as the one in 2014.

"That killed us," Steiner said. "We had to replant or retrain a lot of vines."

Any newly planted vines take about four years before they produce wine-quality grapes, Steiner said.

Weather is a major reason why vineyard owners in California, Oregon and Washington have an edge on Ohio. Still, there are plenty of types of grapes that can handle frigid temperatures and hardier winter varieties are being grown here for experimentation.

A decade ago Regent grapes, a red grape grown in Germany where growers know tough winters, was introduced in Ohio. The grape is performing well here, as is a variety called Arneis, a white grape, originally grown in northern Italy.

From north to south, the state's weather varies, with it being warmer and drier in the south, and varieties can be grown that do well in each region. In northwest Ohio, growers produce La Crescent, Frontenac and other cold-hardy selections, and Labrusca varieties, which can handle subzero temperatures. Favoring a longer growing season with increased heat and milder winters, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Norton red grapes stretch across vines in southern Ohio. Still other varieties grow in northeast Ohio near the Lake Erie shoreline.

The high level of moisture, particularly in northeast Ohio, the largest grape-growing region of the state, can be problematic for vineyard owners, said Melanie Lewis Ivey, an OSU Extension plant pathologist.

"We just have an ideal environment for pathogens," Ivey said of the state's humid and warm summers and falls.

The three most destructive grape diseases are all caused by fungi: black rot, downy mildew and powdery mildew. All three can destroy grapes.

Few natural fungicides exist, so grape growers have to spray artificial fungicides, Ivey said. "But that doesn't make the grapes less marketable because they were sprayed," she said.

That's because the demand for organic wine is not significant, Ivey said.

To ward off fungi, grape growers are encouraged to prune off the clusters which prevent air from moving through the vine.

If they leave the pruned clusters on the ground, they're offering a meal ticket to another pest that plagues grape vines across the country: the spotted-wing drosophila fruit fly.

After larval flies devour the discarded grapes, they will mature and a new generation of adult fruit flies will emerge. "They're going to be looking for food, and it's going to be the grapes on the vine," said OSU Extension entomologist Elizabeth Long.

A native of Southeast Asia, the spotted-wing drosophila fruit fly was first spotted in Ohio six years ago. The fly attacks not only grapes but other small berries, laying eggs inside the fruit. As the larvae develop, they devour the fruit.

For grape growers in the state, Long offers advice on how to fend off grape pests and encourage their natural predators

"The idea is to spray only when you need to so you don't risk harm to beneficial insects and save yourself some money in the process. It's a balancing act of dealing with a few insects, because they're going to be there, and not breaking the bank to have this pristine ‘insect-free' vineyard that, in reality, doesn't exist."

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