Ward in place to help N.J. grape industry to take next steps forward
Although his parents were amateur winemakers, it was not wine that led Dr. Daniel Ward to the study of grapes. He was trained as a pomologist, studying apples and peaches, and got his undergrad education at Ohio State University.
Later, he worked toward his master’s’ at Southern Illinois University studying peaches.
Finally, he received his doctorate. at Virginia Tech, studying apples.
Ward brings a wide range of experience and living in different places to his role as director at the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center here, known as RAREC, a sprawling facility of several hundred acres straddling two counties with dozens of research experiments at any given time. Most all of the land is surrounded by deer fencing.
He lived in California, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio before coming to New Jersey.
“I’ve worked in horticulture since I was 12 years old, and I’ve worked in greenhouses, orchards, and now in vineyards for many years,” Ward said, seated in his office.
“When I moved here to southern New Jersey, I knew I’d be working with fruits because I was hired as an Extension specialist in pomology, the study of fruit and nut culture.”
“After I arrived here at Rutgers, I became aware of the need for people with expertise in grapes. The grape industry here was a young, growing industry, whereas the peach industry here was already a mature industry. The administration encouraged me to support the grape industry, so I said ‘OK, I’m here to serve and take great pleasure in serving.’ Since then, I’ve done research and Extension work for the wine grape industry in general.”
For several years, Ward has been a featured speaker at “Grape Expectations,” Dr. Gary Pavlis’ annual gathering of Garden State wineries, wine enthusiasts, and vineyard owners. The conference is usually held the first Saturday in March each year at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township, Middlesex County.
Still, he dismisses the notion that he is a wine expert.
“Dr. Gary Pavlis is a wine expert. One of the most important things about his experience is that he goes to a lot of industry tastings. He ends up tasting over 2,000 new wines each year,” Ward explained of the Atlantic County Ag Extension Agent, who specializes in blueberries and grapes.
“Gary and I recently visited Blue Cork Winery in Gloucester County here, some very fine people at a really fine winery. We were consulting with them about some issues in the vineyards but then we also tasted some of their wines. Gary is just such an expert taster and he has such a sophisticated palate, that I always learn something when I’m out with Gary Pavlis.”
While the pair were at Blue Cork Winery, Ward said Pavlis demonstrated some blending techniques to the winemaker, “so Gary is truly a wine expert, whereas my work is more focused on grapes, but as they apply to serving the wine industry. It’s more than just the field cultivation of grapes, but also the economics of it too, and the education of growers.”
While he’s hesitant to call himself a wine expert, the top shelves of the book cases in Ward’s corner office at RAREC are adorned with various empty wine bottles, many from Garden State wineries.
There are 55-60 wineries in New Jersey and in recent years, some farmers have converted chunks of their land to growing grapes in a quest for better profits.
In front of the RAREC building and adjoining greenhouses, Ward has plots of Concord grapes, which are native to North America. Here they are used as table grapes and occasional grapes for winemaking. While this plot was not surrounded by any deer fencing, other plots that Ward oversees at the sprawling RAREC facility are. Last year, it was used as an experiment for spotted lanternflies, which are known to be attracted to grape vines and the tree of heaven.
Regarding the recent invasion of the invasive spotted lanternfly, first noticed in 2014 in Berks County, Pa., Ward said it’s going to take time to see what kind of damage these bugs can do. Because it feeds by piercing the stems of softer woods like grape vines and tree of heaven and sucking out the liquids, he added, it’s not immediately obvious what kind of damage they’re doing.
“We don’t know so far exactly how big an impact they’re going to have on the industry. The fact is they can kill and have killed grapevines in large numbers, and they’ve killed entire vineyards in Pennsylvania.” Some in Pennsylvania successfully killed off spotted lanternfly populations using pesticides, “but they were not able to reduce the impact of them enough to save the vines.
“If they’re moving into your vineyard on a daily basis it’s going to be really hard to protect your vines from these pests and your vines could suffer some serious damage. But we don’t know if we’re going to see continuing high populations, if this epidemic will have waves and ups and downs, and we don’t know how nature will respond to it. Let’s face it, lanternflies in these numbers are a big food source for those things that might prey upon it or parasitize it,” he said.
Nature will react, he argued, perhaps in the form of a bird like the gray wren or in the form of some kind of wasp or hornet that eats them, “but it takes time for the checks and balances of nature to work themselves out.”
The tree of heaven, a weedy pest species that grows very quickly toward the sky along the edges of roadways, ponds and streams and other areas that afford a lot of sunlight, is itself an invasive species.
“I don’t think people are going to feel too badly about reducing the tree of heaven population to help reduce the population of spotted lanternfly. The bigger problem is the spotted lanternfly feeds on many species so it’s going to be able to prosper here for the time being.”
Out in his unfenced test plot of Concord grapes, he said viticulture takes its name from the genus “vitis,” which includes old world grapes like chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes that have been growing in European countries for centuries.
“Within North America we have many other species of grapes which are important, like Concord grapes,” Ward said.
“In recent years, some people have done a very good job with breeding grapes that are interspecific crosses, or hybrids, so that they have more than one species going in,” he said. “And many of these are produced as wine grapes in this country.”
In his years working with wineries all over the state, Ward has witnessed the progress so many grape growers have made, and he agrees with the prediction Pavlis made about the quality of Garden State wines.
At a recent “Grape Expectations” conference several winters ago, Pavlis — who always throws humor into his presentations — was dead serious when he argued that in another 30 or 40 years, some wines from the Garden State will rank right up there with the best wines made in France, where there is a similar climate and where they’ve been making wine for 500 years.
“We’ve tried making wine here in New Jersey in the past, in our long history, but this current run is by far the most successful we’ve ever had because we have the tools to grow vitis vinifera and we have many more interspecific hybrid grapes that are really good quality wine grapes. We also have better tools and better understanding and more knowledgeable people,” Ward said.
“We have a cadre of wineries around the Garden State that are producing wines that can compete with any of the best wines, not 50 years from now, but right now.”