Virginia’s wine industry generates $747 million for the state’s economy. According to a 2012 report released by the governor’s office, that figure more than doubles a 2005 estimate of how much the industry would grow in seven years.

But long before grape juice is pressed and wine is bottled for consumers, growers must consider a staggering amount of variables in deciding where to plant vines and which varieties are best suited to a particular soil. Growers in the Eastern United States will soon have help in evaluating land for vineyard suitability using a Web-based application.

Grapes on a vine
A new online application uses GIS data to help take the guesswork out of which grapes are best suited for a vineyard's land.

In development for two years, the tool is based on a similar, Virginia-specific application developed by researchers in Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology and viticulturists at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, Va.

That application, called the Virginia Viticulture Suitability Investigative Tool, allows users to select features of potential land parcels, such as soil type, drainage capability, and nutrient status. With a few mouse clicks, users can evaluate which grapes are best-suited for a parcel of land.

The ability to evaluate land before planting matters to growers because topography, which affects the local climate, and soils are key to both consistency and quality of grape production. They give wine its sense of place, or terroir.

Traditionally, growers needed to evaluate printed soil studies and make a largely educated guess about where to plant.

The Eastern U.S. vineyard site evaluation tool is funded by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative through a grant to Virginia Tech and six other institutions: North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The project, led by Tony Wolf, director of the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is conducted in partnership with Peter Sforza, director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology at Virginia Tech.

“Like our original Virginia site evaluation tool, we don’t envision the Eastern U.S. site evaluation application to be a one-stop measure of site suitability,” Wolf said. “Rather, it's designed to provide a preliminary site assessment and to help match high-quality vineyard sites with the appropriate varieties suited to those sites.”

Jim Benefiel, former vice president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, used the Virginia Tech tool to expand his Benevino Vineyards in Northern Virginia.
Jim Benefiel used the Virginia Tech tool to expand his Benevino Vineyards in Northern Virginia.

Ultimately, the site evaluation tool could make planting a more precise affair. The application represents one part of the $3.8 million grant that includes research initiatives in variety evaluation, grapevine management practices, wine marketing studies, and a outreach and extension education.

“It's a planning tool, said Jim Benefiel, former vice president of the Virginia Vineyards Association who works as a consultant in the Virginia wine industry through his company, Benevino. Benefiel has used the Virginia-specific application to expand his operations in northern Virginia, where he has two vineyards on 20 acres and grows more than a dozen grape varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Traminette, Chambourcin, and Vidal.

“Over the long haul, the tool can prevent you from making thousands of dollars in mistakes. I have seen several vineyards abandoned, principally because of an inappropriate location. An apparent increasing frequency of late spring frosts may cause others to be abandoned in the future,” Benefiel said.

The overall goal is to keep growing the state’s wine industry. As of 2013, Virginia was fifth-largest of the grape-growing states for wine, a classification that has held steady since 2009.

But obstacles such as severely erratic weather that brings damaging early frosts and late summer storms can make growing grapes difficult in the commonwealth. Future iterations of the new tool could evaluate a parcel of land for that possibility of a freak spring or fall frost.

“We need to increase grape production, and we need more premium grapes, too. We’d like to carve out a little niche for ourselves, and hopefully tourists will come out to our wineries and enjoy the Virginia vistas,” Benefiel said. “You can’t have the same experience in the wine aisle of your grocery store.”

  • Written by Amy Loeffler.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Lori Greiner at 540-231-5863.

How it works

The Virginia Viticultural Suitability Investigative Tool can help keep future winemakers from costly mistakes in planting grape vines on inappropriate soil or in poor climates. The application also can shave off countless hours of evaluating soil study maps on paper.

Map your parcel and select options to see its soil quality, potential for early spring or late fall frost, its sun-facing hillsides, and other factors.

About Virginia grapes

Grapes grow on the vine.
Grapes grow on the vine.

Virginia has become known for certain kinds of both wine-making grapes that thrive in our climate and soil. Many of those traditionally known as “Virginia” grapes, such as Old World varieties Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, as well as other types such as Chambourcin, Vidal, and Norton were developed with research assistance from Virginia Cooperative Extension.

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