Scientists are working on genetically modified grapevines that are resistant to disease, and genetically altered yeast to improve fermentation. Researchers at the University of Florida, for instance, backed in part by grape growers in that state, announced in May that they had patented a way to implant a silkworm gene into grapevines to make the vines resistant to Pierce's disease, a blight currently menacing vineyards in California.
But many winemakers are aghast, fearing that while such vines might save their grapes, they would wipe out their sales and the mystique of their product. They say consumers, particularly in wine-loving Europe, will reject such wine as they now shun other genetically modified foods. Others, while less adamant, still wonder if wines made from the grapes containing foreign genes will retain their varietal purity.
"I think it's very likely for someone to say, "This isn't genuine cabernet sauvignon,"' said Peter Poole, president of the Mount Palomar Winery in Temecula, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles.
Consumers will not find genetically modified wines in their local liquor stores for at least several years. But the wine world is already starting to debate the issue.
In France, which produces 20 percent of the world's wine and many of its finest vintages, the reaction has been "Sacré bleu!" A group of winemakers in the Burgundy region has called for a 10-year moratorium on the use of genetically modified vines and yeast. The campaign is now spreading to winemakers in the rest of France and around the world.
But in the United States, there is more receptivity. Several wine trade groups met in San Francisco on June 18 to develop an industry position that, executives say, will support research on genetic engineering, while assuring consumers that no new technology will be used until proved safe.
"We don't want to chop off the science," said Terry Lee, vice president for research and development at E.& J. Gallo Winery, the largest American winemaker. While Gallo is not yet doing genetic engineering, he said, "The potential is just mind boggling."
Many makers of less rarefied wines do not seem to share the same fears of the high-end makers about whether genetic engineering might subtly change things like the bouquet or "mouthfeel" of their product. They are more focused on protecting vines and increasing output.
Florida vineyards are so hurt by Pierce's disease that they cannot even grow the typical varieties used in high-end French and California wines. "We've been supporting research so we can actually grow more vines than we can right now," said Robert Paulish, president of the Florida Grape Growers Association.
The New York State WineGrape Growers trade group said research it supports to make vines resistant to mildew could actually improve the taste of wine. "A mildewed berry doesn't have a good flavor, let's put it that way," said June Pendleton, the group's president, adding that French and California winemakers might oppose genetic engineering because it could allow other regions to better compete with them.
Research is proceeding not only in the United States but in Germany, Italy, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Chile and, yes, even France.
Most of the work on vines is directed at making them resistant to diseases rather than changing the fruit. Besides increasing grape output, disease-resistant vines should require less chemical pesticide spraying, scientists say.
But vines take several years to produce their first fruit and are expected to last in the field for 25 years or more, so development and testing will take time. The University of Florida vines and others are not expected to be ready for commercial use for at least 5 to 10 years.
Wine is also chemically complex. "The flower and composition of wine grapes is such a subtle thing," said Carole Meredith, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis. "You can't mess with it and assume it will be the same."
Genetic alteration of the yeast that turns grape juice to wine is often aimed at eliminating chemicals that detract from taste or appearance or that make the wine harder to filter. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren, director of the Wine Research Center at the University of British Columbia, has made yeast containing a bacterial gene that can eliminate an acid from wine without producing byproducts that cause headaches. He said the yeast might be ready for sale to wineries in as little as two years.
But Linda F. Bisson, another professor at Davis, said some yeast strains modified to improve flavor also destabilize the color of wine. Other yeast strains altered to improve wine have produced vinegar instead, she said.
The biggest obstacles are cultural. Wine is as much about romance as chemistry, and many winemakers fear that genetic engineering will undermine that image. Some winemakers also say that genetically engineered vines or yeast could lead to too much uniformity in wine.
"Winemaking is part science and part art," said Ted Seghesio, a fourth-generation winemaker in Sonoma Valley. "When you introduce too much science into it you lose the individuality."
Such feelings seem particularly strong among the French. "We are not in a business where we make Coca-Cola (news/quote)," said François Cordesse, a French winemaker now working in the Sonoma Valley. The Burgundy winemakers opposed to genetic engineering say the technology is a threat to "terroir," the concept, widely embraced in France, that particular types of grapes are appropriate only for certain locations.
Moët & Chandon, the big Champagne maker owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, dropped work on genetically engineered vines in 1999 in response to pressure from the public and its peers, and tore out the altered vines.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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Last Updated on 7/16/01