The Advances of Modern Science in the Vineyard

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GrapevineThere is a growing interest in family genealogy. Services such as and are mining our interest in tracing our roots – not only our family history but, increasingly, our genomic make-up.

We want to know more of our ancestors than strictly how they spent their lives or their contributions to society. Rather, in our multiethnic nation, we are increasingly seeking to determine our genetic origins. I have friends who spat into a tube, submitted this DNA culture to a research company and, to their surprise (or maybe chagrin), were told they have as many as 10 ethnic or racial ancestral roots.

For several, especially those who had previously traced their ancestry to one or two ethnicities or races, this was an eye-opening experience. In the last quarter-century, science has significantly expanded our understanding, and potential control, of our DNA make-up at an astounding pace.

So too with wine. For centuries, grape growers have endeavored to alter the characteristics of grapevines and the ultimate treasure of vines: grapes that are superior to their ancestors. Grapes that are hardier, more disease-resistant, more flavorful and more marketable have been cultivated since early Roman and Greek times.

Today, man is diligently expanding his 21st century scientific enlightenment into the traditional realms of nature. Science is at a crossroads in developing super-strains of grapevines and grapes through DNA manipulation in the laboratory.

Man’s efforts to improve upon nature’s natural selection process has historically centered on grapevine hybridization and cloning, mainly through trial and error. Today, in a number of agricultural universities around the world, this rudimentary process is shifting from the vineyard to the research laboratory.

Examples of man’s efforts in the vineyard abound. For centuries, man relied heavily on nature to create new hybrids through the forces of wind, insects and birds to pollinate grapevines of different origins. Sometime in the 17th century the art of grafting was developed. This entailed the attachment of young grapevine shoots bearing specific desirable traits onto a rootstock that possessed the traits the young shoots lacked.

Thus began vineyard owners’ success in altering the very core of wine’s natural profile, resulting in grapevines’ vitality, resistance to disease and even the flavor of its grapes.

Was grafting an aspect of natural selection? Or was man intervening and interfering with nature? The question was never intensely researched – until recently.

In a groundbreaking project several years ago, a team of researchers at University of California, Davis was able to break down the genetic code of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. DNA testing discovered that, through natural selection, it is the genetic child of two disparate grapes: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. That naturally hybridized red and white grapes could produce a robust, highly revered grape startled the wine world. Were all of man’s grafting efforts to hybridize this grape secondary to natural selection?

Since then, research efforts around the globe have accelerated in defining the DNA fingerprint of grapes. Efforts are underway to create new grape varieties in the laboratory, not in the field. New varieties that are designed, not hybridized; new varieties created from scientific method, not grafting trial and error.

The research team at UC Davis, led by Professor Dario Cantu, began a study, utilizing state-of-the-art technology, to analyze and eventually alter a grape’s genetic structure.

“The new genomic information that will be generated with this new genomics approach will accelerate the development of new disease-resistant wine grape varieties that produce high-quality, flavorful grapes and are better suited to environmental changes,” Cantu said.

In this new age of scientific enlightenment, is there a difference between attempting to influence the output of nature versus altering the very essence of nature? Nature versus nurture takes on a new meaning in the 21st century vineyard.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at

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