Mapping Complexity in Washington Wine Country
September 2, 2010 by Brian C. Clark
As you read this, a graduate student in Prosser is sitting in front of his computer, for the umpteen millionth hour, bashing his head against the mapmaker’s perennial problem: the map can never be as detailed as the terrain it represents.
But that doesn’t mean the mapmaker doesn’t try. Especially when there is tremendous pent up demand from Washington grape growers for a vineyard site-selection tool.
Ian Yau is the mapmaker, and he’s a grad student based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Yau is trying to wrestle a vast amount of information to the ground in order to turn raw data into useful knowledge.
“It’s a lot of spreadsheet manipulation,” Yau said, the wry understatement of his project causing a smile to play across his face.
Consider what you’d want to know if you wanted to plant a vineyard in Washington. You’d want to know, of a given plot of land, how many growing degree days it got at a certain elevation on a particular slope. You’d want to know about the soil beneath your feet: is it going to drain properly so the grape vines don’t wallow and rot? Is there hardpan or some sort of other restrictive layer close to the surface that will prevent the plants from sinking their roots deep into the soil? And what’s the soil’s water-holding capacity and pH?
As a future wine-grape grower, you might not even know that you do, in fact, want to know these things. But Yau does, and that’s because he’s working with Joan Davenport, a WSU soil scientist who has been studying grapevines and the (“don’t call it dirt!”) soil they grow in for years.
“I saw Ian’s graduate school application and noticed he had some geographical information systems experience from his previous work for the Oregon Department of Forestry,” said Davenport. “And I thought, maybe he’d be interested in working on this site-selection project. It’s one I’ve had on my wish list for years.”
“I met with Joan, and I met with a weed scientist who also had a GIS project. So it was either wine or weeds.” Yau shrugged; no brainer.
“Nothing will ever replace an on-site inspection of a potential vineyard site,” Davenport said. “But with the massive growth of the industry, we get a lot of calls asking about the suitably of a site, so having this tool will help us weed out sites that obviously won’t work.”
Yau, just beginning year two of his master’s project, already has a working iteration of the site suitability model for Washington. Thomas Henick-Kling, director of WSU’s viticulture and enology program and a strong proponent of GIS, helped secure funding for Yau’s project.
“We’re testing the validity of the tool by comparing the model’s predictions with established vineyards,” Yau said. That means walking vineyards to check the accuracy of soil-type data, topology and much more, as well as interviewing experienced vineyardists about the conditions in their fields.
“Establishing a vineyard is very expensive,” Yau said, “so, of course, people want to get it right.”
Yau has already fielded calls from landowners who want advice about which cultivars will do well on their property. The requests have helped him focus on developing the site-selection tool for specific areas. As well, he’s had help from Greg Jones, a geographer at Southern Oregon University who has worked extensively with viticulturists and has a great deal of expertise in site selection, as well as Rick Rupp, a geographic information systems coordinator in WSU’s Lab for Geospatial Research, Education, and Outreach whom Yau considers to be WSU’s go-to guy when it comes to GIS.
“Refining, refining, refining,” Yau answered when asked what comes next. The complexity of the project is daunting, simply because there are so many variables he’d like to be able to account for. “I’m narrowing this down to what is possible in the time I’ve got.”
Yau said the eventual goal is to make the site-selection tool publicly available, perhaps through a Web-based interface.
“But that,” he said, “is going to be a project for some other graduate student.”
Davenport agreed: “Initially, the model will be available internally for WSU research and extension people, who field these questions all of the time. Eventually, we want to have this publicly available through the Web, but we are working on that at a larger scale which will include work by Greg Jones of SOU in both Oregon and in the Puget Sound.”