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Wine industry welcomes first state viticulturist

DEMING - As a commercial consultant, German-born viticulturist Bernd Maier has helped improve local vineyards for two decades.

Growers here and in West Texas have contracted Maier's Mesquite-based company, Arid Land Technologies, to design and install custom irrigation systems, including one at Deming-based New Mexico Vineyards?the state's largest wine grape operation with 300 acres.

Now, as the first viticulture specialist hired by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, Maier will provide consulting services free to growers statewide.

"We need a viticulturist to help improve grape production and wine quality," said Paolo D'Andrea, general manager at New Mexico Vineyards and owner of Deming-based Luna Rossa Wineries. "Many growers can't afford private consultants, but they need basic information and technical assistance. Now, they'll have an expert to turn to for the first time."

Rex Franklin, membership secretary for the New Mexico Wine and Vine Society, said most growers are anxious to take advantage of Maier's services.

"The viticulturist will particularly help small growers," said Franklin, who maintains a 1.3-acre vineyard in Corrales. "Those of us with less training and experience have faced an uphill struggle because of lack of guidance in managing our vineyards. We've spent years trying to convince the state to hire a viticulturist."

Thanks to lobbying by wine industry leaders, the Legislature approved $150,000 over the last two years for NMSU to hire a viticulturist and conduct wine grape research, said Rich Phillips, senior project manager for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. The state will continue to provide $75,000 annually to maintain the position, which Maier filled on June 1, Phillips said.

Some legislative money already has been used for research, including a comprehensive survey of grape and wine production in 2005, Phillips said.

The survey showed that about 80 percent of the state's 100-plus vineyards are located in New Mexico's central and northern regions. Some large commercial vineyards are located in the south, but most vineyards are small, one-to-three-acre operations.

Survey respondents said growers need technical assistance on nutrient management, pest control and appropriate irrigation techniques to improve production. In addition, most growers need help protecting vines from extreme cold in winter and against early-fall and late-spring frosts.

Maier will help growers in all those areas, Phillips said.

"As a private consultant, Maier has worked on many large commercial vineyards in the state," Phillips said. "He has tremendous knowledge of local growing conditions. He'll hit the ground running."

Maier comes from Germany's wine-growing region of Baden. He earned a degree from the Viticulture Institute of Freiburg, and after moving to New Mexico in 1984, he earned a master's degree in agricultural economics at NMSU.

In 1994, he launched Arid Land Technologies, which specializes in vineyard development and design and installation of water-efficient irrigation.

"There's huge diversity in growing conditions around the state, so producers need locally focused assistance," Maier said. "I'll help growers with everything from rootstock and variety selection to frost control and installation of trellising and irrigation systems."

Maier will conduct variety trials to help growers choose the best wine grapes for each region.

"There are currently 127 different varieties grown in New Mexico, but we need to determine which ones are most suitable in each growing zone," he said.

To assist Maier, NMSU invested about $25,000 to set up a network of weather stations across the state, Phillips said. The data?to be made available real time statewide through NMSU's online weather site?will show minimum and maximum temperatures and wind speed and direction in key growing regions to help producers plan irrigation scheduling and other production decisions.

NMSU also invested about $25,000 in a mobile irrigation demo trailer equipped with drip and sprinkler systems to allow Maier to do traveling workshops, Phillips said.

"A lot of vineyards are too small to hire professionals to put in drip and other systems, so the mobile demonstration trailer will let us provide them with onsite consulting," Phillips said.

If growers improve grape and wine quality, they can better compete with other wine-growing states, Maier said.

"We have more than 30 wineries in New Mexico," he said. "We can't compete in volume and marketing with large West Coast producers, but we can compete on quality and develop niche markets."

Henry Street, owner of Jemez-based Ponderosa Valley Winery Inc., said improving grape quality is the key.

"There's an old saying that wine is made in the vineyard," Street said. "If Maier helps growers improve grape quality it will benefit everybody."

Street will host an open field day June 17 at his winery to introduce Maier to grape growers and wine makers.

Paolo D'Andrea, who hired Maier five years ago to install a subsurface drip system at his 14-acre orchard in Deming, said the viticulturist will help build demand for locally produced wine.

"I only opened the Luna Rossa Winery a year ago, but I already sold about 25,000 bottles," D'Andrea said. "There's still a lot of space to grow. Many people don't know about New Mexico wines, but as Maier helps improve our wine quality, the market will grow."

Information on vineyard field day
Grape growers, vintners and wine lovers can meet New Mexico State University's new viticulturist and get their grape and wine questions answered during an open field day, Saturday, June 17 at the Ponderosa Valley Winery in the Jemez Mountains.

Winery owner Henry Street is hosting the event, sponsored by the New Mexico Wine and Vine Society. Participants should bring contributions for a potluck lunch, during which viticulturist Bernd Maier will hold an open question-and-answer session. Visitors can tour Street's 11-acre vineyard and winery, and vintners can get their wines critiqued by experts from the Wine and Vine Society.

The workshop runs from noon to 5 p.m. Take Highway 550 west to San Ysidro. Turn north on Highway 4, go past Jemez Pueblo, then turn right on Highway 290. The winery is three miles up on the left.

For more information, call Street at (505) 834-7487 or Rex Franklin at (505) 898-4245.