Winemakers, viticulturists, scientists, researchers, and students of enology and viticulture from across the globe gathered at the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel in California from June 17 to 20 for the 70th annual national conference hosted by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV). The conference featured a packed schedule of seminars that explored new industry research and technological developments relating to grape growing, winemaking, and even consumer behavior.
“To me, the biggest thing about coming out to ASEV every year is that you get out of your own little bubble,” said Hans Walter-Peterson, the director of ASEV and a viticulture specialist at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “I’m from New York, but you find out that people in Oregon or Washington or California or Missouri are doing something similar but have a different twist on it. That’s super valuable.”
Here are six key takeaways SevenFifty Daily drew from this year’s event.
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1. Context can change a consumer’s wine experience.
“Wine is a multisensory experience,” said Susan Bastian, an associate professor at the School of Agriculture, Food, and Wine at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Bastian focused her keynote presentation on the ways in which the context of a wine-drinking experience affects consumer behavior, choice, perception, and emotions. She presented her own research and discussed several other recent studies that found factors like music, lighting, and wine packaging can all affect how much consumers drink, how quickly they drink, and how much they like a wine. Bastian’s research shows that a wine’s label doesn’t influence only purchasing behavior but taste as well; in another of study, consumers rated German Rieslings as “prettier” under white or green light, and “bitter” under blue light.
Consumers even have preferences for wine aromas and flavors depending on the occasion or season. Results from an online survey conducted by Bastian and her colleagues that polled 3,000 consumers in the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. showed that lemon aromas were preferred in summer and in barbecue settings, while chocolate aromas were preferred in the winter and at restaurants. “As more robust insights are generated,” says Bastian, “it’s possible that we can actually design or manipulate the environment using simple things like music and lighting to promote the desirable characteristics of the wine and induce a more enjoyable drinking experience.”
2. New technology, like virtual reality, can be used to effectively collect consumer data.
The wine industry can collect data on consumers in many ways in an attempt to better understand contextual preferences and needs, said Bastian, including turning the sterile sensory lab into a more realistic and comfortable tasting environment. But new technology could also be a game changer. For example, companies can experiment with immersive print—infusing sensory experiences into print marketing—or augmented reality, which the Australian wine company 19 Crimes has already implemented. Its Living Wine Labels come to life and talk when consumers use a smartphone app.
Bastian has also experimented with virtual reality. “Research has found it’s definitely a more engaging context than the sensory lab,” she said, “and obviously, it’s more ecologically valid because while it’s a virtual environment, it’s more realistic, but you still have some control. You can control what your consumers are looking at.” (Ecological validity is a measure of how effectively a psychological study can predict subjects’ behavior in real-world settings.) However, the experiments illustrated some disadvantages: The headsets are clunky, making it difficult to taste wine, some participants complained of “VR sickness,” and others started walking around and bumping into each other—but the technology is improving daily.
3. Weed mats may be an effective alternative to herbicides.
The standard use by the agricultural industry of such chemical herbicides as Roundup to kill weeds has been a hot-button topic lately—French president Emmanuel Macron declared earlier this year that France would be glyphosate free by 2021 but has since backed away from the aggressive timeline—and researchers are looking for alternative, nontoxic weed-killing solutions. In ASEV’s Managing Vineyard Pests and Weeds session, Kenneth Olejar, a research fellow in the Department of Wine, Food, and Molecular Bioscience at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand, presented the findings from a study in which he used weed mats on Malbec vines in New Zealand to control vine undergrowth. Placed over the soil, these textile mats stop sunlight from reaching the roots, therefore blocking weeds from sprouting.
Data collected during the 2016 through 2018 vintages showed that the weed mats were highly effective at preventing weed growth but did not result in significant changes in grape yield or perceived wine quality. “There were no weeds,” said Olejar. “If you applied [the weed mat], nothing grew. If you damaged the weed mat and there was a hole, a weed grew. So if you put it down and it doesn’t get damaged, nothing grows.”
4. A new app assists with vineyard management and troubleshooting.
Grape growers can now conveniently solve problems right from the vineyard, thanks to a new mobile app that was developed by Edward Hellman, a professor of viticulture and enology at the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock. Outlined by Hellman in the Managing Vineyard Pests and Weeds session, the free TTU Vineyard Advisor app provides research-based management recommendations for grape diseases and disorders, pests, and more. It covers 360 vine problems that occur across the United States.
Users can search the app by the name of the problem and then obtain information on conditions that may have caused the problem to develop, and recommendations for natural control and cultural practices, like sanitation and canopy management, and organic solutions and materials—the last of which proved to be challenging during the app’s design. “There’s really not a lot of good information out there on what’s organically approved and its relative efficacy on different grape problems,” said Hellman. “It’s a big research gap that has to be filled.”
5. Blending can increase tannins in hybrid wines.
Speaking on behalf of the Midwest wine industry—which, according to the 2017 Wine America Economic Impact study, has roughly 1,200 wineries and made a $34 billion contribution to the economy in that year, almost half of California’s $71 billion—Erin Norton, the education and outreach coordinator of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University in Ames, presented research on interspecific hybrid cultivars to close out an enology session on phenolic extraction. “Hybrid is not a bad word,” she said of the varieties that are frequently used in the Midwest. “There are lots of positive aspects of hybrids.” They can withstand cold temperatures and resist diseases, but a major drawback is that red hybrid grapes tend to be significantly lower in tannin than vinifera grapes. High tannin presence, said Norton, has been shown to be a major indication of quality to consumers.
Focusing on the popular hybrid Marquette, Norton experimented with blending the wine with a high-tannin vinifera variety postfermentation—in this case, Cabernet Sauvignon—and also with co-fermenting the Marquette with Cabernet Sauvignon. Both trials resulted in a significant increase in tannin, but the blending method resulted in greater tannin retention than co-fermentation.
6. Everything known about grape sunburn could be false.
A study presented in the Fruit Composition and Yield session by Arturo Calderón-Orellana, the director of environmental extension at the Facultad de Agronomía of the University of Concepción in Chile, had attendees questioning their knowledge about sunburn in the vineyard. The incidence of sunburn is a growing problem in Chile, but Calderón-Orellana said that he found very little data on the subject as a whole, especially as it pertains to the wine industry, and that what data did exist was inconsistent. He conducted the study in Chile’s Itata Valley, a good location because of its high temperatures, high radiation, and lack of irrigation. “It’s given us the opportunity to see the challenges for the future,” said Calderón-Orellana, alluding to the problems that climate change may soon pose for all wine regions.
His team collected data from head-trained Muscat of Alexandria vines across six nonirrigated vineyards and came away with] several surprising results. While it’s generally believed that sunburn will increase Brix and speed ripening, Calderón-Orellana’s study did not, in fact, find a close relationship between sunburn and Brix. “You don’t need to fry your berries to get higher Brix,” he said. Existing research had also suggested that semi-shaded vines lead to a higher concentration of terpenes, and that high berry temperatures can conversely reduce the concentration of terpenes. But the grapes with the most severe sunburn in Calderón-Orellana’s study exhibited a higher concentration of terpenes than the nonsunburned berries. Finally, Calderón-Orellana found that fruit zone height had no impact on sunburn, despite some bunches being closer to the warm soil.