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Dec. 15, 2019 | Sunday
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Federal money helps growers cultivate virus-free vines
Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery, examines infected vines. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

The federal government is spending more than $2.3 million to help grape growers cultivate clean, virus-free grapevines.

The money will go to the Canadian Grapevine Certification Network, a nationwide not-for-profit organization comprised of four provincial growing associations: the Grape Growers of Ontario, the British Columbia Wine Grape Council, l’Association des vignerons du Québec and the Grape Growers Assocition of Nova Scotia.

Accessing virus-free vines has been identified as one of the top five challenges the Ontario wine industry has been facing, according to a 2018 Ontario wine and grape industry performance study.

One of the most common grapevine diseases is called red blotch disease. Once the vines are infected, there is no cure, according to the grapevine network’s website.

For Jamie Slingerland, the director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery, the federal funding comes in handy as he has one three-acre block of 3,000 vines that is infected with red blotch disease. It may be a small piece of land in comparison to the rest of the winery’s production, he said.

“The federal government says, ‘Now, we have a chance, with a small investment -– really a few million dollars – to save the billion-dollar industry,’” he said. “This is one of the most significant investments that will have the greatest benefit that we have seen in a very long time.”

Infected vines don’t produce enough sugar and nutrients, and the final quality isn’t as high as expected, said Slingerland.

Because of the poor quality, the infected grapes will be used for “entry-level” wines instead of reserve wines. Losing 14 tonnes of grapes on a three-acre property would result in about 1,100 fewer cases of wine per year, Slingerland told The Lake Report.

“And the most tragic part of it is we grow our grapes to reserve quality. And so I’m losing reserve wines,” he said.

The announcement was made on Saturday, June 15, at Konzelmann Estate Winery in NOTL. A number of officials were on hand, including Justice Minister David Lametti, Liberal MPs Chris Bittle (St. Catharines) and Vance Badawey (Niagara Centre), the grapevine network’s vice-chair Bill Schenck and Jim Reschke, vice-president of Konzelmann. 

By receiving the money through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriAssurance program, the national organization will work on creating a network of certified clean grapevines that Canadian grape growers can plant in their vineyards.

The organization will categorize and assess existing samples from nurseries and grape growers across the country. Through a database, it will track every vine, produced through this program and planted in a vineyard, back to the mother plants, according to the government’s media release.

Some of the larger growers hold off from planting new grape vines until they are able to get clean plant material, Schenck said after the announcement. 

Planting a vineyard can be very expensive, ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 per acre, added Reschke.

It may take from three to five years for vines to come into full production and be virus-free, Reschke told reporters.

By planting clean vines right from the start, growers could save money in the long run.

Wendy McFadden-Smith, a horticulture with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said it’s up to the growers whether to remove a vineyard. If the yield and sugar remain high enough to cover the maintenance cost, the growers will “keep plugging away,” she said.

“The challenge is finding sources of certified virus-free nursery material for replanting. Growers have historically relied on local nurseries for their new vines,” McFadden-Smith said in an email to The Lake Report.

“Typically nurseries would source their scion wood ... from local commercial vineyards. They would select the healthiest vines that had no apparent symptoms of the virus. This was before we realized how prevalent these viruses are.”

Supporting the industry in dealing with the infected vines is important, especially in Niagara Region, because the wine industry is the largest tourism draw to the area, said Slingerland.

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