Benton City nursery offers certified grapevines to growers, wineries

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldAugust 13, 2012 

Kevin Judkins pinches off the top 4 inches of a small grapevine, pulling off the bottom leaf.

The two-bud green tip will grow its own roots in about three weeks in the greenhouses that Inland Desert Nursery has added in the past four years.

The Benton City nursery has expanded in the past six years to meet the demands of a growing industry and is the state's largest nursery offering certified vines to growers and wineries.

When people picture the start of wine, Judkins said they tend to think of vineyards. But it really starts in a nursery.

About 75 percent of the certified vines planted in Washington get their start at Inland Desert Nursery, Judkins said. That's the niche Judkins' father, Tom Judkins Jr., discovered in the 1970s at the urging of Walter Clore, a Washington State University researcher who died in 2003 and is referred to as "the father of Washington wine." Judkins said Clore's advice turned out to be pretty good.

Selecting plant material is one of the most important aspects of starting a vineyard, said Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' vice president of vineyards.

Some of the grapes grown for Ste. Michelle wines start on vines from Inland Desert Nursery, and the Judkins family also grows grapes for Ste. Michelle. Ste. Michelle owns such wineries as Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie, Northstar and Spring Valley. It also co-owns Col Solare on Red Mountain. Ste. Michelle uses about two-thirds of all the wine grapes grown in Washington.

Certified vines are the best way to avoid viruses that can debilitate or kill vines, Corliss said.

"Absolutely our first choice is certified plant material," he said.

The vines in the nursery's registered blocks are propagated from plants grown at WSU's Clean Plant Center of the Northwest in Prosser.

Certified vines are the best option for commercial growers because they have the highest likelihood of being free of viruses and true to type, Judkins said.

The nursery has to follow a process for certified vines, including maintenance, Judkins said. They are inspected twice each year by the state, which works closely with WSU to make sure virus testing is appropriate.

Viruses such as grapevine leafroll are a concern because they can devastate vineyards, Judkins said. Starting out with a clean plant is an important prevention step for a sustainable and profitable vineyard.

Once planted, Judkins said the vines can produce wine grapes indefinitely unless they are hit by a virus or replaced with a variety that is more popular. Most of the demand Inland Desert Nursery has seen has been for new acres being added, he said.

And Judkins said he and his family are expecting to see another planting boom in the next several years.

Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, told the Herald earlier this year that per-capita wine consumption in the United States is increasing at a rate that will put the American wine industry in short supply of grapes in another five years.

Washington has more than 43,000 acres of vines, and Baseler said another 10,000 acres "would be a nice start."

Corliss said Ste. Michelle plans to expand and meet that rising demand.

That's a good sign for Inland Desert Nursery, because a typical vineyard will need anywhere from 1,600 to 2,400 vines per acre.

Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling and chardonnay are the major players in Washington, Judkins said, and the nursery offers more than 500 grape varieties and clones. Clones are alterations to the main varieties that may ripen earlier, have a smaller berry or different flavor profile that the winemaker may want, Judkins said.

Most of Inland Desert Nursery's vines are grown in the field using dormant hardwood cuttings, which takes about a year.

It can grow more than 4 million cuttings a year in its 150-acre field nursery, most of which are in the Prosser area, Judkins said. And it is now growing about 500,000 cuttings a year in eight greenhouses, half of which were added this spring, he said. That's about 25,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

The green tips of parent vines are planted in soil and receive constant bottom heat and intermittent mists in the greenhouse, Judkins said. In about three weeks, they have grown their own roots.

Judkins can take a smaller amount of green plant material and propagate a new plant in less time using mist propagation. But the plants are more fragile than those started in the field, and they need more care.

In the past three years, the nursery has begun grafting vines, mostly for a growing out-of-state market, he said.

The grafting is done by a machine that cuts one vine into another in a tight puzzle piece.

Washington is one of the few places in the world where almost all vines are self-rooted, Judkins said. In most other wine-producing regions, the wine grape variety is grafted onto a disease-resistant root system. This is because of a root louse called phylloxera that has devastated vineyards in Europe, California and Oregon in the past 150 years. Phylloxera is not an issue in Washington because of its cold winters and sandy soils.

The nursery also has seen an increased demand in the past five years for certified table grape vines it propagates because of the need for clean plants in garden centers. Those vines are sold by retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's, Judkins said.

About 50 people work year-round at the nursery, and seasonally, they may have up to a couple hundred workers helping out, Judkins said.

The field nursery is planted each April, and now, workers are caring for the growing vines.

The vines are ready to be taken out of the ground after the season-ending frost in fall causes the plants to go dormant, Judkins said. The vines are stored in bundles of 25 and sold to growers, who typically plant them in March or April.

Corliss said Inland Desert Nursery is innovative and has kept up with changes in diseases, science and market demand. The company works to make new grape varieties and clones of interest available on the scale needed by companies such as Ste. Michelle.

"They have been instrumental in developing registered mother blocks, which are unbelievably important to our industry," he said.

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