The Scientist: Prof. Bruce Reisch Develops New Grape Varieties

Reisch develops new disease resistant, cold hardy grape varieties...

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 Prof. Bruce Reisch ’76, horticulture [right], and Steve Luce, a research support specialist [left], collect leaves of grape seedlings for genetic analysis (Courtesy of Bruce Reisch)
Prof. Bruce Reisch ’76, horticulture [right], and Steve Luce, a research support specialist [left], collect leaves of grape seedlings for genetic analysis (Courtesy of Bruce Reisch)

By Suzy Park via the Cornell Daily Sun, 1/ 21/15

Beginning with the School of Hotel Administration’s wine course as an undergraduate at Cornell, Prof. Bruce Reisch ’76, horticulture, has become an expert in wine variety development and plant breeding, having introduced 13 new grape varieties — both wine and table grapes — to the viticulture industry. Researching grape vines and developing new varieties of grapes has been Reisch’s focus since joining the Cornell faculty in 1980.

“With grapes, you are looking to reduce the costs of production and increase quality,” Reisch said. “And that comes down to being able to utilize wild species and leaving behind the negative fruit quality traits that come from the wild species [while] being able to bring in the genes for cold hardiness and disease resistance.”

According to Reisch, the development of a new grape variety is a long process that often takes around 20 years. Much of this time is spent getting a young vine to produce fruit, followed by six to eight years of data collection.

“It all starts with, first of all, envisioning what you want and finding the right pairs of parents that can give you what you want and have the right combination of traits that you are looking for in the new variety,” Reisch said.

After setting the target features of the new variety, such as cold hardiness, disease resistance and fruit quality, hybridization follows.

“In year one, it would start with a cross between two parents, a male parent and a female parent,” Reisch said. “We harvest the seeds then in the fall [and] plant the seed out next spring.”

Over the years, Reisch said he has observed the plant breeding process become increasingly innovative.

“Breeding nowadays starts with the extraction of DNA from every single seedling and the testing of the DNA for the presence of certain genes that we absolutely must have in the new varieties that we are developing,” Reisch said. “We can eliminate more than half and sometimes three fourths of plants we plant out [in the field] just by testing DNA.”

Reisch plays a major role in a project with the aim of advancing seedling DNA testing. VitisGen is a project headed by Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop genetic maps of different grape populations, locating and marking specific genes, such as those affecting fruit quality, according to Reisch, who is the grape breeding lead of the project’s breeding team.

“What we are trying to do in the VitisGen project is to greatly expand the use of marker-assisted selection. Instead of just one or two traits, we want dozens of traits available to us to prescreen our seedlings and to reduce the number of seedlings that go to field testing,” Reisch said. “Science gives us a lot more tools to develop new varieties and that’s really been the fun part of the job.”

Using a combination of traditional approaches — hybridization and planting seedlings — and novel approaches — genetic maps and DNA markers — Reisch has introduced 13 new grape varieties, including Traminette and Chardonel, which have been very well-received by the industry, according to Reisch.

“Sometimes you really can’t predict what will happen, and sometimes a variety will be a product of the time,” Reisch said. “When we released Traminette, I thought it would be a little less successful. I knew the wine quality was good, but I was surprised at how broad the success was, not just in New York State but in many other states.”

According to Reisch, part of the unpredictable nature of a new variety’s success is due to the fact that of the many grape qualities, such as disease resistance and cold hardiness, there is no single quality that is most important.

“If I have a disease resistant, cold hardy grape but it makes terrible wine, nobody would plant it. If I have a disease resistant grape that makes fantastic wine but doesn’t survive the winter, very few people would plant it,” Reisch said. “What is really important is getting the combination of traits into one variety.”

Another critical part of the development process is naming the new variety.

“One of the guiding principles is that we want a name that is really marketable and we want to avoid any other possible use of the potential name within the industry,” Reisch said. “So we have to avoid all other grape variety names — and there are about 10,000 in use around the world — and names applied to generic wines, as well as wineries.”

For the most recent grape varieties to be released, Aromella and Arandell, Reisch’s team held a naming contest. The idea started out as a suggestion in a conversation in Geneva, New York, but became viral as the story was picked up by multiple sources, and eventually made it on National Public Radio, according to Reisch.

“In the end, we had over 1,500 emails and thousands of name suggestions,” Reisch said. “We were getting suggestions from Australia, Singapore and China. It was amazing how this story travelled around the world.”

In the coming years of research, Reisch says his goal is to develop highly disease resistant grape varieties, not just to one disease, but to multiple diseases.

“It is really a major goal for us to — without sacrificing quality or hardiness — stack up genes for resistance to multiple diseases such that growers would not have to spray with pesticides, or could greatly reduce the use of pesticides [and] reduce the cost of production at the same time,” Reisch said. “To make available a range of varieties that fit different niches in the wine industry, that would be a great deal of fun and a great career accomplishment.”

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