Nearly 200 years ago in 1818, the first domestic plantings of grapevines were introduced to Chautauqua County in the Brocton area. In 1850, the Concord grape was introduced to the county and production of the grape took off.
However, due to the lack of proper refrigeration and the fact that pasteurization had yet to be invented by Louis Pasteur, all grapes that were produced in the area were either sold as table grapes or used to produce wine.
Meanwhile, in Vineland, N.J., a father-son team consisting of Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch and Dr. Charles Welch began experimenting with grapes. Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch was a dentist by trade, however he also served as the communion steward for his local Methodist church.
As a devout Methodist during a time in America where the stage was beginning to be set for prohibition, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch desired to create a non-alcoholic substitute for communal wine.
In 1869, the father-son team began to experiment with concord grape juice, now using pasteurization techniques developed by Pasteur in 1865. They soon created a process for preserving grape juice and began marketing it with the label Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine. The product was developed with churches in mind and at the time neither envisioned it could be used as a beverage for the general public.
In 1873, Welch bought the business from his father. Afterward, he came to Westfield to take advantage of the large concentration of Concord grapes that were growing throughout the region. Over the next 20 years, Welch spent his time perfecting a pasteurization process for Concord grape juice. By 1893, he was satisfied with his product and it was introduced to a wide audience at the World's Fair in Chicago, upon where it quickly became a popular drink across the nation.
In 1897, Welch built the world's first large grape juice plant in Westfield. He changed the name of the product to Welch's Grape Juice, and Westfield quickly became known as "the grape juice capital of the world."
Though Welch's Grape Juice no longer calls Westfield home, the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt is still immensely productive, currently boasting over 30,000 total fruit-bearing acres.
To help growers be as productive and efficient as possible, the Cornell Cooperative Extension located in the town of Portland has instituted the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, which experiments with grapes and helps to find new ways to keep the grape belt on the cutting edge.
ORIGINS OF THE PROGRAM
In 1992, Penn State University and Cornell University decided to collaborate their resources, and along with the grape and processing industry, and the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program was established.
"Originally, (select vineyards) in Ohio had been offered to participate in the program as well, but it didn't end up working out," said Tim Weigle, who has been a member of the program since 1989, when the program was called the Great Lakes Fruit Program. Weigle is currently the integrated pest management agent for the LERG program. "There are over 30,000 acres of grapes in the Lake Erie region, which spans throughout Pennsylvania and New York. We have about 20,000 acres of grapes in New York, which spans from Lake Ontario through Niagara County, Erie County, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County."
Before the LERG program came together, there was a county agent located in Pennsylvania that was in charge of programming and implementation projects, as well as a viticulturalist and pest management specialist in New York. As the program came together, a business management position was able to be added, and the LERG program currently employs three full-time staff and one part-time.
"When the program was formed, industry helped support the research and extension portion of the program," said Weigle. "There used to be two locations located about 40 miles apart, one for research and one for the extension portion of the program. Now we have a relatively new facility here which combines the two. This is the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory. Obviously, the grape industry was the driving force for the new facility, and (state) Sen. Cathy Young and Assemblyman Bill Parment were critical in helping to get the new facility. We've been here going on three years now."
In relocating to the new facility, which is located on Route 20 outside of Westfield, it was determined that the facility would allow any research and extension occur there that would help the grape industry. In seeing the potential for it to help grape growers and wine makers, the facility recently started experimenting with growing hops as well.
As aforementioned, the grape industry helps to support the research facility, as research performed there in return helps the grape industry to grow.
"Right now, the National Grape Cooperative, Mogen-David Wine Company, Constellation Wines and Walker's Fruit Basket provide funding for each ton of Concord grapes that are produced in the Lake Erie region," said Weigle. "They have a voluntary assessment and they use that funding to support extension as well as research. Other funding partners are the cooperative extension associations, which are Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Niagara County in New York, as well as Erie County in Pennsylvania. Erie County in New York was part of the operation, however budgeting problems have caused them to withdraw from the program."
THE GRAPE BELT
As many residents who live in Chautauqua County have likely noticed, there is a specific and distinct area in the county where grape growing occurs, with extremely little variation.
"(The plateau located between Route 20 and Route 5) is the perfect area for growing grapes," said Weigle. "We have the lake right next to us which moderates the temperatures for the most part in the spring. This spring was a little bit different, mainly because the lake never froze. When the lake freezes, you have the ice there, which keeps the lake from warming up too quickly. That was the problem this year, without ice, the lake was able to warm up too quickly. Then, in a normal year, the lake picks up heat from the sun over the summer, and it moderates the freezes in the fall. That helps us extend our growing season significantly. Once you get past the escarpment (located below Route 20), grape production drops off drastically and dairy becomes the main form of agriculture."
Similarly, as one travels west on Route 5, the city of Erie, Pa. occupies much of the land around the lake, where grape growing would be optimized. Though there are grape vineyards scattered intermittently throughout Erie County, N.Y., it lacks the natural plateau that is available in Northern Chautauqua County and is less conducive to grape production.
The ultimate purpose for the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, of course, is to help growers in the region to be as efficient and productive as possible through research and scientific advancement. During his time with the program, Weigle has been a part of several improvements in the field.
"We've been making some strides with growers, and that's part of the deal with grower funding," said Weigle. "One of the things I've been working with a network for environment and weather application. We've put up 12 pieces of weather equipment across the Lake Erie region, so now we can go on the internet and check weather all across the (grape belt) without having the leave the facility. Because the growing area is so big, parts of the belt could experience a very dry season while other parts might receive lots of rain. This simply helps us to execute practical management strategies regardless of where our growers are located."
Another frontier which the LERG program is constantly exploring is the mechanization of growing.
"Mechanization is a big thing in agriculture right now," said Weigle. "Labor is difficult to get, so if you can mechanize a practice and not have to worry about whether the labor is available or not, you're going to be ahead of the game. Trying to come up with cost effective mechanize practices is essential."
Aspects of growing which can be made more efficient by mechanization ranges from planting to harvesting and everything in between. Simply put, a mechanized vineyard is a uniform vineyard, and a uniform vineyard promotes efficiency.
"Part of the mechanization of vineyards is the use of sensors," Weigle continued. "Using sensors to determine the crop load and vine size in vineyards basically going around and sensing the different vineyard sites. What is desired is a uniform vine size across the entire vineyard so there aren't weak areas and strong areas. This way equal amounts of fertilizers can be applied across the entire vineyard without over or under fertilizing specific areas."
Other new techniques which have helped to create uniform vineyards is laser planting, which helps to ensure that grapevines are equidistant from each other, so harvesting devices can move in a straight line between vines when harvesting without having to worry about missing large portions of the vine.
Finally, one of the largest concerns vineyards face year after year is destruction caused by insects.
"One of the big projects I'm working on right now is the grape berry moth," said Weigle. "It's the major insect pest of grapes east of the Mississippi. Because it's a direct fruit feeder, it actually lays its eggs on the grapes, and when the egg hatches, the larva bores directly into the grape. What we've been working on over the years is trying to find the correct time for management strategies against the berry moth. ... What we've found over the years with the warmer temperatures is we're having more problems with the berry moth. The old risk assessment protocol was based on the calendar. Unfortunately, an insect's life cycle is driven by temperature, so warmer years means a faster life cycle. We've been working with Mike Saunders out of Penn State and Greg Lobe out of Cornell, and we've come up with a degree day model, where we start calculating the number of degree days rather than the calendar. It's helped us defend against the berry moth a lot better and as a result have increased vineyard yields."
Special thanks to the McClurg Museum and Virginia Carlberg for contributing to this article.