If you happen to walk past the office of Dr. Andy Walker in the Viticulture and Enology Building at UC Davis, you might notice some pretty strange looking plants growing behind his desk and on his window sill. “These are just a few of the hundreds of species of plants from around the world that belong to the Vitacae family of plants, which our vinifera vines are also a part of,” said Dr. Walker. “Most of the ones in my office came from Africa and Madagascar.”
For over a decade, Dr. Walker has been using traditional plant breeding methods to breed Peirce’s disease resistant wine grape vines and sees the value of using those same methods with some of the plants in his collection. What these plants have to offer California’s wine industry might be the answers to providing disease, drought, or pest resistance to wine grapes.
“At some point it might be possible to map the genes in these odd succulent species to identify which genes are responsible for their drought resistance,” he said. “We might even be able to breed a specific gene into Vitis vinifera in the hopes of incorporating that trait into wine grapes.” While these plants may look nothing at all like recognizable wine grape vines, when examined closely they all have some traits that give away their relationship to wine grapes.
“Most have flowers that look remarkably like the tiny flower clusters of wine grapes, and they produce berries that look like table or wine grapes,” said Dr. Walker. “Others send out tendrils or have leaves that look much like those of vinifera.”
While discovering what beneficial trait a given plant might offer is relatively easy, discovering the gene or genes that could pass along that trait is another story. “We have the high-tech tools we need to map out genes and then breed those genes into wine grapes, but achieving these goals can take a long time.”
In test plots at UC Davis, Dr. Walker is growing a wide range of vinifera’s cousins to study them on a larger scale. “Some of these plants could very well be the source of the genes we need to solve some of the wine grape industry’s current and future problems,” said Dr. Walker. “The genes are just waiting to be discovered and used.”