Science & Technology

UW-River Falls Researcher Creating Winter-Proof Grapes

A researcher at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls says he’ll spend the next 10 to 15 years creating a variety of sweet table grapes that can weather the toughest Wisconsin winters. 

Brian Smith, horticulture professor and UW-Extension commercial fruit specialist, has been working since 2012 to cross sweet California grapes meant for eating with a sour but extremely hearty variety of wild grapes found along Wisconsin riverbanks that seem impervious to the winter freeze.

The idea, Smith said, is to grow a grape in Wisconsin “that doesn’t have to be shipped and can be picked at peak quality.”

“That’s what people are looking for and they’re willing to pay a premium price for that quality,” he added.

With the help of a $97,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Smith has hired an assistant and is buying trellises and other grape-growing equipment.

A Wisconsin table grape industry, said Smith, could someday be worth $15 million to $20 million, but creating a sweet table grape that can withstand Wisconsin winters will take time. A typical grape plant takes anywhere from three to five years to set fruit after being planted. Add to that lots of trial and error. 

“The problem is when you’re trying to combine the winter heartiness with good fruit quality and seedlessness from, say, California grapes, you get something in between,” said Smith.

Generally, he said, it takes “two or three or four generations of extra crossing” to get the fruit just right.