NASA partnership aims to enhance wine industry

The office of Gov. Terry McAuliffe has announced the completion of a project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that could boost the state’s wine industry.

The project, named Virginia Agriculture II, is using satellite imagery from NASA’s Earth Observing System to provide more precise data on vineyard acreage for the state’s booming wine industry.

Virginia Agriculture II is part of NASA’s DEVELOP program that partners with localities nationwide to conduct agricultural, environmental and ecological feasibility studies. For this project, NASA paired with the Virginia Wine Board as well as researchers from across the state.

Todd Haymore, secretary of agriculture and forestry and a board member, discussed the results during a phone interview.

“It was a map of Virginia that you saw from a satellite … and then it zoomed in on different counties all across the commonwealth,” Haymore said. “You could see the vines from this picture and you would know exactly where they are located.”

Chris Blosser, general manager of Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville and a wine board member, said, “It’s one thing to hear a list of numbers … it’s another thing to be able to look at a map or a satellite image and actually quantify that visually.”

At the moment, one metric the industry uses is the Virginia Wine Board’s annual Commercial Grape Report, which tracks grape acreage production from year to year.

“The Commercial Grape Report is a wonderful tool that everyone relies on to make some sort of measurable decisions,” Blosser said, adding that cross referencing that information with this digitized map could provide more clarity.

In particular, Haymore indicated the data from NASA might provide a way for the state to look at ways to tackle the current grape shortage.

Use of this data could give the industry “a better understanding of exactly where vineyards are located now, but also … where the best potential vineyards could be located,” Haymore said.

He added it could also give industry officials a better sense of “what type of varietals should be planted” and where those varietals could thrive.

“From a producer’s standpoint, you can really understand … how a slope or a particular valley is producing a unique character. That can be helpful,” Blosser said, adding that he believes there are an infinite number of applications from this project.

Blosser said that he thinks data from entities like the viticulture program at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester “can make this a really robust tool” for grape growers of varying experience.

Dr. Tony Wolf, director of the Winchester center, noted that DEVELOP projects are “cut and dry” affairs where researchers have to “get in, get it done” in a 10-week period.

Two years ago, Wolf said, he worked on a NASA DEVELOP project that mapped the state’s “low temperature frequencies” for a graphic representation of “where the potential spring frost problems were.”

Wolf also noted that they have been mapping and documenting this since the 1980s, and he said the DEVELOP project “more or less matched what we were already showing, but it did it in a nice graphical way.”

Although he did not work on Virginia Agriculture II, Wolf said that a tool such as this is useful in that it “gives some of the answers” to questions regarding “vineyard site evaluation.”

Wolf said he thinks it is a “safe assumption” that the resulting map is another tool that can be used alongside traditional data collection methods used in agriculture.

“Like any other tool, it usually works best if the people have a good understanding of how grapes grow and how they perform,” Wolf said.

As it stands, the Alson H. Smith Jr. research center gives grape growers looking at vineyard sites a broad spectrum of largely climatological data. This data can then be used by growers to select the right grapes for their operation.

“Matching a variety to climate is extremely important,” Wolf said, explaining that a popular variety such as cabernet franc can end up being “too flabby or too alcoholic” in a climate that is too warm.

“I think it’s great what [NASA is] doing,” Wolf said. “They are looking at ways to … justify their existence, so they’re looking at ways of taking some of that technology and applying it back to current agricultural problems.

“My hat’s off to them for doing that,” he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com