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Fredericksburg facility will address top wine industry threat

The newly opened Texas Pierce's Disease Research and Extension Program facility in Fredericksburg may yield solutions for mitigating the single-greatest threat to the Texas wine industry, experts said.

The 3,200-square-foot facility, which opened June 14, is operated by Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Texas Cooperative Extension, both entities of the Texas A&M University System. It includes a main building, there are three 30 ft. x 48 ft. greenhouses and an adjacent 1-acre research and demonstration vineyard. Laboratory equipment at the facility includes growth chambers, incubators and field cages for capturing insects.

"This is a dedicated research and education facility built specifically for the purpose of finding out more about how to mitigate this disease which costs the Texas wine industry millions of dollars," said Dr. Jim Supak, Experiment Station director for the Pierce's Disease Research and Extension Program.

The new facility was built with the cooperation of private individuals, state and local government, academia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Texas and California wine industries and many others, said Supak

Experts in various scientific disciplines, including entomology, molecular biology, and plant pathology and physiology, will collaborate on research and education related to Pierce's disease. While most of the facility's researchers are part of the Texas A&M University System, researchers from the University of Texas-Tyler, the University of Houston-Downtown and Texas Tech University will also participate in and contribute to research and education efforts through the facility.

"Our research and education efforts through the facility will focus on host plants, how Pierce's is transmitted from location to location, and how to best detect and control it," said Jim Kamas, an Extension fruit specialist in Fredericksburg.

The new test vineyard at the facility will enable researchers to learn more about how the disease is transmitted, said Kamas, who will oversee research activities at the vineyard. It will also provide a more "scientific context" in which to learn more about wine-grape root stock susceptibility to the disease and how certain environmental factors may affect overall wine-grape quality and production.

"The facility provides something that has been needed for a long time - an infrastructure for studying this disease in the very heart of Texas wine country," he said.

Previous research has demonstrated that Pierce's disease is caused by the xylella fastidiosa bacterium which is spread from plant to plant by small insects called sharpshooters, said Isabelle Lauziere, an Experiment Station research entomologist who will work from the new facility.

"We're hoping the new facility will help us answer some questions about why these sharpshooters seem to prefer certain plants over others," Lauziere said. "And we hope to identify the natural enemies of these sharpshooters and use the greenhouses help identify - and raise - these natural enemies."

The facility will also help researchers get more in-depth information about plant and insect genetics related to Pierce's disease, and about the relationship between the disease and the insects that transmit it, she said.

Cord Switzer, CEO of Fredericksburg Winery, who attended the opening of the new facility, said mitigating the effects of Pierce's disease was "vital to the economic security of the industry."

Switzer, who produces about 7,000 cases of wine annually from wine-grapes bought from eight area vineyards, said support for new facility was key to the industry's future.

"This really is a multiple-state, multiple-industry issue," Switzer said. "And we need to not only have a facility like this, but we need to get funding in place to address this disease on a national level."

Switzer will travel to Washington, D.C. later this month as the Texas wine industry representative on a team discussing funding for Piece's disease with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and congressional appropriators.

"We have state-related legislation in place to address the issue, but now we need national funding for efforts related to Piece's disease, he said. "And this year, for the first time, Texas has a place at the table during those discussions."

Switzer said mitigating the disease would also benefit agri-tourism stemming from vineyard and winery tours and help the economy of multiple communities in wine-producing areas of the U.S.

While the Texas wine industry has an annual economic impact to the state of more than $1 billion, Pierce's disease is definitely not just a Texas problem, said Dacota Julson, executive director of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

"The disease doesn't have borders, and it affects the California wine industry and the wine industries in other states," Julson said. "That's why it's important that groups come together to share research and vision, like they have done with the new facility in Fredericksburg."

Over the past five years, much progress has been made toward identifying how Pierce's disease is transmitted and how to manage it, said Joy Johnson, chairwoman of the Texas Pierce's Disease Growers' Advisory Board.

"We've already come a long way in addressing this disease," said Johnson, co-owner of Granite Hill Vineyards. "And while it doesn't affect wine quality, it can be devastating - and costly - from a grower's standpoint. "We need to find newer and better ways to manage this disease so we can educate the vineyard owners on how to achieve the best possible wine-grape quality and quantity."

A well-focused research and educational effort, such as the one conceived through the new Fredericksburg facility, can help make that a reality, said Phil Garcia, regional director for the agriculture department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

"When you've got people from government, industry, academia and local businesses and organizations working together to find practical solutions, a lot can be accomplished," Garcia said. "I think the facility will certainly make a serious contribution toward a national effort to find a solution to the problem of Pierce's disease."

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