FAMU’s Viticulture Center is famous for its annual Grape Harvest Festival, taking place this Saturday and open to the community (find out more about the day’s festivities here). This year’s festival features celebrity hosts FAMU President Elmira Mangum and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and marks 38 years of operation for the center. While the fun of stomping grapes captures much attention, the science of what goes into making those grapes is what drives the Viticulture Center’s mission. Work at the center is pioneering tastier versions of table and wine grapes derived from native American muscadine grapes, helping to grow Florida’s growing wine industry and to playing a role in improving sustainability of the wine industry globally.
Formally called the Center for Viticulture and Small Fruits Research, it is the only specialized academic center on grape research in the Southeastern US. It is charged with conducting basic and applied research and providing service to promote the development of a viable viticulture industry in Florida. According to the Florida Wine and Grape Growers Association, there are 24 certified wineries in Florida, covering 500 acres, and producing slightly under 2 million gallons of wine.
Research at the site on the eastern fringes of Tallahassee takes place in the 44-acre vineyard and in a set of well-equipped laboratories. Work includes traditional breeding methods for plant selection along with high-tech biotechnology and in-vitro selection, according to director Dr. Violeta Tsolova. A mix of science and art create variations in grapes and wines that are produced, with a surprising range of flavors. Decisions at various points in the production process lead to variations in tastes.
Mr. Matteo Voltarelli, a wine maker from Italy who has brought his expertise to the center, notes that in wine making in particular, good results come “mostly of decisions, timely decisions!”
Besides developing new and improved grape cultivars, work at the center includes devising best management practices for Florida grapes and selected small fruit. The Center maintains a “National Clean Plant Center” for grapes by growing native hybrids free of diseases that could harm crops. Twenty-three varieties of economically important hybrid varieties of muscadine and other native grapes are grown and certified to be free of disease.
In addition to breeding efforts, researchers have their eyes on the potential contributions that disease-tolerant native grapes might have to the global wine industry as a whole. Genetic resources from native grapes including muscadines may be incorporated to boost capacity of conventional grapes for resisting disease and adapting to climate change.
Already the center has drawn international interest from international partners and exchange faculty and students from China, Brazil, France, Israel, Italy, Austria, and Germany. Students from high school through graduate students also receive hands-on science training at the center, working under the tutelage of research scientists in the lab and in the field. In the past five years, 14 graduate and 22 undergraduate student researchers have taken part, making the center a productive locale for boosting STEM education.