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CSUF device scans wine, grape quality

Already in use by such domestic notables as E & J Gallo, Canandaigua, and Mondavi and by many European wineries, the Foss Winescan FT 120 Analyzer was recently installed at California State University, Fresno.

The $80,000 unit was purchased by the CSUF Department of Viticulture and Enology through funds provided by the American Vineyard Foundation.

At the recent CSUF grape day, Roy Thornton, a veteran wine microbiologist, described how the Winescan works and visitors watched it in use. He worked with the Winescan technology for five years at E & J Gallo before recently joining the CSUF faculty.

"The power and range of this technology to the grape and wine industry cannot be underestimated," he said.

The device, Thornton explained, quickly accomplishes analyses taking up to an hour-and-a-half with conventional chemistry. Basically, it casts an infrared beam through a sample of wine or juice, simultaneously reading components by the way they absorb the light.

For finished wines, the beam detects 18 components of the sample, including ethanol, total acid, malic acid, pH, and glycerol. It identifies 12 components in must and 10 in fermenting must. A sanitary index, available through companion software, reveals grey rot, yeast, and other microorganisms, while Brix, acids, nitrogen, ammonia, color, and other maturity levels are identified in juice samples.

Timely adjustments

"Grading can take place at grape receiving stations, straight away," the New Zealander added. "Then we can make adjustments in the winemaking process as it goes along, taking samples halfway through fermentation to be alert to any problems."

Noting that at times bad wines are made from good grapes, Thornton predicted the rapid analyses will be the future for quality. "Things will be a lot tighter for both sides of the equation, growers and vintners. We anticipate that grape quality will be measured at the sugar stand and that contracts will be structured to recognize quality parameters."

Once additional research is done, he even foresees using the Winescan to identify "precursors" of wine flavor in grapes.

Although relatively recent for the wine industry, the technology has been used by the dairy industry for some 20 years, he said.

Among other research projects showcased at the campus event were department chairman Robert Wample’s efforts, funded by the American Vineyard Foundation, to develop a grapevine cold hardiness model.

With cooperation of Paso Robles grape growers, he is accumulating a database of temperatures at which grapevine buds freeze. By using thermoelectric modules in the field, he is recording those levels by the amount of heat vine tissues release as water turns to ice.

Provide guide

The practical application of the predictive model, with attention to both effectiveness and costs, will be a guide, keyed to weather forecasts, for when to start sprinklers, wind machines, or other frost protection, now left to a mix of guesswork, anxiety, and sleepless nights for growers.

With a touch of irony, Wample, who researched cold hardiness at Washington State University before he came to CSUF in 2000, conceded he was once under the impression that frost protection was no issue for the California grape industry.

Since no testing equipment is commercially available, Wample rebuilt for the CSUF project the type of equipment he used earlier at Washington State. By observing buds and cane parts subjected to intense cold in the laboratory, he plans to estimate cold hardiness characteristics, which differ by variety.

For example, it is known that Cabernet Franc is hardier during the winter than Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the physiology of Cabernet Franc makes it vulnerable to spring frosts.

In deep cold snaps, when temperatures fall below a critical level, he said, vineyard frost control measures are of no effect and money spent running them would be wasted. "You might as well just have a glass of wine and go to bed."

Irrigation, nutrition

In another project, Wample is collaborating with faculty members Sanliang Gu and Kenneth Fugelsang on improving irrigation and nutrition practices for Cabernet Sauvignon in the central and southern portions of the San Joaquin Valley.

Grapes grown under various practices will be evaluated for fruit composition along with commercial winemaking practices in the campus winery to select for the highest quality.

The valley, particularly the southern portion, has traditionally been labeled unsuitable for quality wine grape production, but Wample cited the string of national and international award-winning wines made from valley grapes by the CSUF campus winery.

"These wines have demonstrated that fruit from this region can yield premium and ultra-premium quality wines. The valley has a reputation to build, and it also has a reputation to overcome."

Motorola Corp. Precision Agriculture is involved in the research with online technology to gather field data.

Faculty member Sayed Badr is tracing effects of Harmony, Freedom, Couderc 1616, and seven other popular rootstocks on the white, seedless, mid-season Princess table grape variety released in 1999.

Working with David Ramming of USDA in Fresno, who bred the variety, Badr is collecting data on vine growth, yield, and fruit quality of each scion-rootstock combination. He found during the 1999 through 2001 seasons that Salt Creek rootstock showed significantly higher nitrate and total nitrogen concentration at bloom. Differences in yield and fruit quality, however, have not been significant.

Grant monies

Another presenter, Pete Canessa, program manager of the Center for Irrigation Technology on the campus, reminded growers and handlers using electrical power the California Energy Commission has, depending on state budget developments, up to $2 million in Agricultural Peak Load Reduction Program grants to spend before Dec. 31.

The purpose is to reduce electricity use during the peak period of noon to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, June through September.

Eligible projects include installation of high efficiency electric equipment, pump repairs and retrofits, and pump efficiency tests. Among ineligible projects are conversion to diesel engines, co-generation, and projects already funded through power companies.

Canessa can be reached by phone, toll-free, at 866-297-3029 for details.

Since its establishment two years ago, the CSUF Department of Viticulture and Enology has been reorganized in response to industry needs for greater versatility.

Courses formerly taught in the Department of Plant Sciences and Department of Food Science and Nutrition have been combined into new curricula emphasizing cross-training between viticulture and enology.

Enrollment this fall in two bachelor’s degree programs and one master’s program will be about 150.

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