Organic Wine Podcast

Tom Plocher - How to Breed Grapevines

August 14, 2022

My guest for this episode is Tom Plocher. Tom has been growing and breeding grapevines and making wine from them since 1980. He was a longtime friend and mentee of Elmer Swenson, and lives and grows grapes in Minnesota just north of the Twin Cities.

Tom has bred several varieties of grapes that are patented and available for sale out in the world… and you’ve heard about at least one of them – Petite Pearl – if you listened to the recent episode with Montpellier Vineyards in Vermont. In this interview Tom gives detailed instructions about how to breed grapevines, with some great tips and an in-depth sense of what is involved.

While Tom isn’t focused on breeding for resistance to mildew or pests, what he’s doing and what he teaches us in this episode may be some of the most valuable information ever shared on this podcast. Because learning to breed grapevines is what will make it possible to adapt to the rapidly changing climate and find a delicious future for wine that doesn’t require the unsustainable use of chemical sprays that make environmental degradation worse. Tom literally shows us the path to the future of wine, and that it’s something you can do with some intelligence, patience, and care on your own, without a lot of land.

Here’s a fun fact: The time it takes to research, develop, test, and get approvals of a new chemical pesticide is about 10 years. The time it takes to breed, grow, prove out and patent a new variety of grapevine that could have any number of beneficial traits – including a diminished need for new pesticides – is about 10 years.

Forget the fact that the development of the pesticide took millions of dollars too, and that breeding the grape just took time and some knowledge and practice. Imagine if all of us who grow vineyards also began collecting, crossing, and breeding new vines. Imagine where we’d be if we’d channeled our resources over the last 80 years into this approach to resilience and vitality in our vineyards, rather than trying to prop up a handful of increasingly more feeble grapevines with the ongoing development of chemicals that degrade our environment and make climate change and human health worse.  

Think of how much further along we’d be to having real solutions to viticultural challenges by looking in the vines themselves. It is both possible and 100% achievable to have delicious wine made from grapes that never need to be sprayed with anything and thrive in the extreme climate that will be our future. But not as long as we fetishized and clone the same vines over and over again.

If we take the knowledge that Tom gives us here and apply it to the California wine industry, we could have a continually renewing, regenerating, and improving cycle of increasing health and flavor in our wine and our world, rather than this downward spiral we’re on that has an expiration date.

The only thing standing in our way, I believe, is prejudice. We’ve created a hierarchy in which a few types of grapes, and only those few select grapes, can make great wine. That hierarchy is bullshit. All grapes are hybrids.  

I hope you’ll join with me in normalizing the idea that wine is not made from a few European grapes but from an ongoing process of adaptation, innovation, experimentation, and inclusion. If you do, I think the future of wine can be exciting. It can be diverse. It can be delicious.

In this interview, Tom gives us the tools to get there.


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