Melissa Hansen, Washington State Wine Commission research program director, serves as a liaison between the industry and viticulture and enology researchers.
“We believe that we have a world-class wine region here,” Hansen said of Washington state. “And to have a world-class wine region, it should be supported by a world-class research program. We’re getting that at Washington State University, where we have a state-of-the-art facility and internationally recognized researchers. We just need to grow our research program.”
Hansen is proud of the work that the commission has assisted. It has helped build the $23 million Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center at WSU Tri-Cities, opened in 2015, as well as supported the research at WSU’s Prosser station.
“What WSU does has value and is important to the industry,” she said, “and we have a lot of really good past examples of game-changing research that was done with integrated industry and WSU teamwork.”
She explains that early wine grape growers in Washington transitioned from tree fruit. They had to adjust to growing small, flavorful fruit. WSU then developed irrigation systems that controlled canopy, reduced mildew and increased sunlight while also reducing water use.
WSU has also been helpful in solving other problems, such as introducing spot sprays that control cutworms and reduced pesticide use by 80%.
Today, the work done at WSU is incredible, Hansen said. “There are a handful of challenging issues. If we could solve these problems, it would make the growers and the rest of the industry’s lives better.”
Researchers are working on such issues as grapevine leafroll red blotch viruses, smoke exposure, irrigation optimization, nematodes and phylloxera, a microscopic pest discovered last year to be more widespread in the state than previously thought.
Their work often explores creative solutions, such as using dogs to sniff out diseases and pests. If successful, these canine teams could detect problems before vines show symptoms, which would help greatly in slowing their spread and managing the pest.
This is not the end of the research, however, as new technologies are being developed that would use mobile phone applications to estimate crops and ultra-violet light to fight powdery mildew. Also, new mechanization is under development to help solve labor shortages.
Funding for these projects has grown from $860,000 in 2015 to $1.2 million, Hansen said, showing the industry’s commitment to research. About 25% of the wine commission’s annual budget, which comes from all wine grape growers and wineries, is dedicated to research. Viticulture and enology research in Washington is unique because all wine grape growers and wineries help support research, industry guides and approves it; and results are accessible to all growers and wineries regardless of size.
Furthermore, research conferences, in person and through webinars, are co-sponsored by the wine commission and WSU each year to share research results with growers and wineries. They also receive feedback from producers on their problems through an annual survey, which then influence new rounds of research priorities.
Hansen is well suited to this work, she said, given her background and experience. She grew up in agriculture, as her family was involved in livestock. Later, still in California, she worked in grape and tree fruit industries. Perhaps more important to her current work, she studied ag journalism at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo.
She relocated to Ellensburg, Wash., in 1995, where she and her husband live on a farm and grow timothy hay, alfalfa and other forages. She even bales hay on weekends “now that our kids are grown and no longer here to help,” she said.
Her work in California included seven years at the California Fresh Fruit Association and seven more years with the California Table Grape Commission as research director. After moving to Washington, she was associate editor for 20 years at the Good Fruit Grower magazine.
In all of this work, as well as her current post at the commission, she said she enjoys being part of an industry and a region experiencing exciting developments.
“The overall goal of research is to improve wine quality. Washington winemakers already make great wines, but our wines are going to get even better by giving growers and wineries science-driven tools to help them address vineyard and winery challenges,” she said.