Grape scientists descend on St. Louis

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Wine lovers in search of the next great Chardonnay or Bordeaux don't usually hail Ozark Mountain vintners for their grape-growing prowess.

But a team of researchers from Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia studying grape genomics hopes that will soon change. On Tuesday, they'll gather in St. Louis with plant scientists from around the world at the International Grape Genomics Symposium, an event billed as the first international meeting of its kind.

Studying the genetic mapping of wild grapevines could enable North American grape growers to isolate the genes most resistant to pests and diseases, as well as those that make oenophiles' (wine afficianados') taste buds swoon, said Laszlo Kovacs, an associate research professor of fruit science at SMSU's Mountain Grove campus.

"We believe a large part of the answer is through gene expression," he said. "We gain a lot of information on what the key players are at the molecular level."

The three-day conference at the Millenium Hotel in St. Louis will feature scientists from Australia, Portugal, Germany, Israel and beyond. The symposium starts with tours of the Augusta Winery in St. Charles County and Stone Hill Winery in Hermann.

The state Department of Agriculture official who oversees efforts to bolster Missouri's wine industry called the influx of global wine scientists an opportunity to spread the word about the Show Me State's viticultural bounty.

"A lot of people will be surprised," said Jim Anderson, program coordinator for the Missouri Grape and Wine Program. "It's going to open some eyes."

The roots of Missouri's wine industry can be traced to the 1830s, when German settlers in Hermann established more than 60 wineries. By 1847, Stone Hill had grown to be the second largest winery in the country, later winning gold medals at worldwide wine expos. Missouri wineries ranked second in the United States in output, behind only New York, producing two million gallons a year at their peak in the 1880s.

Prohibition put a drastic halt to that rise -- a blow that Missouri's wine industry is still attempting to handle. In 2004, the state's 52 wineries produced 700,000 gallons, said Anderson.

Research efforts to bolster Missouri vineyards are centered in Mountain Grove, an Ozark town 60 miles east of Springfield. The setting -- a hilly region with soil too poor to sustain row crops -- is an ideal laboratory for grape genomics, said Kovacs, a native of Hungary whose family grew grapes.

"The great thing about grapes is they can grow anywhere," he said. "You can grow them on rocks."

Missouri wine growers tend to cultivate French-American hybrid grapes with names such as Vidal, Seyval and Norton. For Tony Kooyumjian, owner of the Augusta Winery, research efforts such as the Mountain Grove project are only one part of the equation. Getting the word out is just as important.

"Right now, I feel like we're on an even plane with other wines in the United States and the world," he said. "We're winning awards all over. The quality is right there with everybody else. It's just a matter of getting people to buy it."

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