MU Grape and Wine Institute expands as interest in winemaking grows
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Interest in Missouri winemaking exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the University of Missouri Grape and Wine Institute has responded to meet the demand.
The institute, a partnership of MU and the state’s wine and grape industry, provides information and advice on all issues related to viticulture and enology. (Viticulture is the cultivation and harvesting of grapes for winemaking; enology is the science of wine and winemaking.) The Missouri Wine and Grape Board provides guidance and oversight to ensure that GWI fulfills its responsibilities.
There are 130 wineries in Missouri. Several are large and well established, while more than 100 Missouri wineries are small and/or recent startups.
The MU Grape and Wine Institute hired Stephan Sommer in 2022 as a state extension enology specialist. He joined Dean Volenberg, leader of GWI’s viticulture program for the past eight years.
In a press release, Volenberg said, “Stephan brings a wealth of knowledge and practical applied experience in the realm of winemaking.”
Volenberg is researching interspecific wine grape cultivars and advanced grape breeder selections.
“Some of the more interesting, advanced breeder selections include loose-clustered Vignoles, a white berried selection from a cross of Norton x Cabernet sauvignon and a cold-hardy red cultivar with genetic contributions from Cabernet franc and Zinfandel,” he said.
“The research documents viticultural characteristics of each cultivar or breeder selection. Stephan will make wine from these cultivars and advanced breeder selections to be compared to current industry standards, with the goal to find new promising cultivars or advanced breeder selections that perform well in the vineyard and also produce outstanding wine.”
“I am excited to work in Missouri because of the state’s incredible history as a wine-growing region,” said Sommer. He says the GWI team is well-connected to the industry in Missouri and beyond. “Dean has been leading the viticulture side for years and truly understands the needs and the potential, which is a great help for me.”
Sommer holds trainings for those new to winemaking and is educating consumers about Missouri wines.
“I see great potential in the growth of Missouri’s wine industry,” he said.
He believes growth can best take place through community engagement and activities with a “buy local – drink local” focus.
“Missouri’s wine industry can learn from craft brewers, such as those in North Carolina, where I previously worked, that invite families for activities involving food, music and community,” Sommer said.
His efforts include helping new and established winemakers improve the quality of their wines.
“We have to serve the market here in Missouri – what consumers want when it comes to wine,” he said.
Two projects Sommer is focused on for the Grape and Wine Institute are a service lab for anyone in the state to submit wine samples for analysis and a wine-quality alliance in which samples will be taste-tested and feedback given.
Missouri was one of the nation’s leading wine producers in pre-Prohibition times, Sommer noted. The state was also instrumental in breeding and selecting cultivars – which were then lost during Prohibition – and supplying plant material to other regions and countries.
“Missouri was known for wine, and I would like to bring that back to public perception to bring Missouri’s wine industry back to its pre-Prohibition glory,” he said.
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