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Research program supports Arkansas wine industry

Per capita wine consumption in the United States is overtaking that of Europe, spurring interest in new winery startups in Arkansas and neighboring states, said Justin Morris, food scientist for the University of Arkansas System’s statewide Division of Agriculture.

Arkansas is the leading wine-producing state in the South, though Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee are catching up, said Morris, director of the Division of Agriculture’s Institute of Food Science and Engineering.

Altus is the wine producing heart of Arkansas, he said, but wineries have sprung up in other areas including, most recently, one in Eureka Springs that produced its first vintage in 2006.

Morris has published Considerations for Starting a Winery, a division research report designed to help people who want to start a winery.

Morris has devoted more than 40 years to research on grape and juice production, and some 30 years to work on wine production. He is an internationally acknowledged expert in the field and has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad to share his accumulated knowledge.

“We examine the entire system from planting to wine production,” Morris said. “Pre-harvest and post-harvest cultural practices all affect the final quality.”

Morris is co-inventor, with retired Benton County grape grower Tommy Oldridge, of a mechanized vineyard system that is licensed to and marketed by Oxbo International Corp. Mechanized vineyard systems are the topic of the Justin Morris International Symposium on Vineyard Mechanization, a meeting named in Morris’ honor Feb. 1-5 at Osage Beach, Mo.

His reputation makes Morris the go-to source for prospective winery operators.

“People who are starting wineries in the region are calling me because we’ve had a grape and wine research program longer than anyone in the South,” Morris said.

The first question Morris asks people who are interested in starting a winery is, “Why?” The answers typically cover individual’s fondness for wine, or a perception of a pastoral lifestyle. Down near the end of the list is that they’d like to make some money.

“They are seeking the romance of owning a winery,” Morris said. “But it’s mostly hard work and only a little bit of romance. A vineyard is a lifetime investment, and that’s an important consideration when thinking about starting a winery.

“Considerations for Starting a Winery came out of a desire to keep people from making mistakes and give them the information they need to make a plan they can take to the bank and get started.”

Americans are developing a more refined taste in wine, Morris said, and this contributes to increased wine consumption in the U.S.

“This is good,” Morris said, “because wine is considered a drink of moderation. Wine-drinking countries tend to have less abuse of alcohol because wine is more commonly consumed with meals than by itself. We spend a lot of time trying to convince people that wine is a food and should be consumed with food and matched to your food.”

Morris keeps busy traveling to grape and wine meetings all over the world.

“Grapes and wine have been very good to me,” Morris said. “We’ve been lucky to do work of interest to people all over the world.

“Grapes are grown in many of the most beautiful and historically rich areas of the world,” Morris said. “When you’re studying the history of the grape, you’re studying the history of mankind.”

Considerations for Starting a Winery is available from the Division of Agriculture; call (479) 575-5670 and ask for Research Report 983. It can also be downloaded in pdf format from the Web:

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