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Wyoming Wine project creates new opportunities for academics and landowners to work together

Wyoming might not be the first choice for grape growers and aspiring vinters, but a group in Sheridan is working to change that. Professors, graduate and undergraduate students at UW and Sheridan College are using advanced techniques to identify traits in different grape varieties that make them well suited to Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio’s Chelsea Biondolillo reports.

CHELSEA BIONDOLILLO: Sadanand Dhekney is a UW Horticulture professor, stationed at the Sheridan research and extension center. On the far edge of the Sheridan campus, near the other green houses, he and his research team tend a small plot  surrounded by deer fencing and criss-crossed with black irrigation tubing.

SADANAND DHEKNEY: This is a one acre vineyard, so 17 rows are being used for a grape variety trial and we’ve planted 35 different varieties in here with the goal to identify suitable varieties for Wyoming.

BIONDOLILLO: Dhekney believes that Wyoming’s dry weather is a major benefit to growers, as grape vines are susceptible to fungus in wet areas like the West Coast, though he acknowledges that early frosts and late thaws are limiting factors here.

DHEKNEY: This age at which you can start commercial production varies from place to place, under Wyoming conditions it takes anywhere from 3 to 4 years considering our short growing season. One of the objectives of this variety trial is to see varieties that can be established at a faster rate.

BIONDOLILLO: Dhekney’s research uses biotechnology to identify the best traits from a wide range of grape varieties. The ultimate goal is to create new Wyoming-tolerant grapes by combining those traits.

About a half an hour away, on a windy hilltop in Parkman, Stephanie Zier tends around 200 grape vines behind her house. For the vineyard is still a hobby, but she hopes to make it a business in the future.

When asked why she chose grapes, which are an atypical Wyoming crop, she said that despite the short season, the Wyoming landscape seemed ideal for grapes. 

STEPHANIE ZIER: You know what you read about grapes is that the more you torture them, the better fruit you get, and I thought I can certainly torture a plant.

BIONDOLILLO: An avid telemark skier, Zier has named her operation “Telly Peak vineyard.” She is also one of Dhekney’s statewide local grower-partners.
DHEKNEY: The first thing I did after coming here is getting a lot of information from the growers, and what their requirements are… and so that helps me get a head start in giving the direction for our research.

ZIER: And also, when you evaluate different plants, you know that certain varieties… when 10 people tell you that they died in year two, there’s not a lot of reason to re-evaluate them.

BIONDOLILLO: Dhekney gathers information from Zier, and in turn he can share plant material with her when it is ready to be tested in the field.

In this way, the work at Sheridan College benefits the research project, as well as Telly Peak Vineyards and other vineyards as far away as Basin and Huntley.

Back at the research vineyard in Sheridan, Dhekney and his students are joined by Dan Bergey, the Sheridan College faculty advisor on the project. Bergey teaches biology and biotech courses at Sheridan College and sees this project as a way to jump start his students’ academic careers.

DANIEL BERGEY: Collaboration like this… enables students at the community college level to funnel into the research system and advanced degrees with UW. So, they can get training here, get their feet wet in research, get hands on practical applici and training, and then go right into an advanced research program, and advanced PhD, graduate program, or even medical dental or PA school.

BIONDOLILLO: While students and vintners across the state get a majority of the benefits of the research, they aren’t alone.

BERGEY: It’s a win-win situation for everybody. For me, it’s an opportunity to still do research as well as my teaching duties, but I can dabble in research. It’s interesting… and I think we’re the only institution in the state doing grape research, aren’t we? I think this is it.

BIONDOLILLO: Dhekney and Bergey agree that Wyoming may never rival California’s Napa Valley, but they both believe that grapes might someday be an important part of Wyoming’s agriculture. Dhekney’s current project is scheduled to last for at least the next ten years, with support from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Chelsea Biondolillo

Chelsea Biondolillo is originally from Portland, Oregon and comes to Laramie by way of several southern cities, including New Orleans, Austin, and Phoenix. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming in creative nonfiction and environmental studies and her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Phoebe, DIAGRAM, Birding, and others. Chelsea loves plants, birds, and rocks, and tries to spend as much time as she can around them.
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