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NASA Satellite Data Modernizes Virginia’s Wine Industry

Data was used to create digitized maps of about 250 commercial vineyards, providing more accurate information on the number and size of operations and offering vintners useful planting information.

by Tamara Dietrich, Daily Press / May 21, 2015

(TNS) -- Virginia vineyards are getting the once-over from space as NASA and the Virginia Wine Board partner to explore the potential of the state's growing wine industry.

NASA used its Landsat 8 satellite to help create digitized maps of about 250 commercial vineyards, providing more accurate information on the number and size of operations and offering vintners useful information on if and where they should plant next.

"The state sees the demand for Virginia wines is growing faster than the actual acreage of Virginia (vineyards)," said Kenton Ross, a science adviser at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. "So hopefully what it does is, as it paints a picture for what the supply of grape production in vineyards is in the state, it'll encourage the current vineyard owners to expand production and it'll encourage new people to get into grape production."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture collected that data in Virginia until stopping in 2009. Since then, the Virginia Wine Board has relied on self-reporting by individual wineries and vintners.

The maps were generated as part of NASA Langley's DEVELOP program, an agencywide effort to find practical uses for its Earth observations and scientific expertise. The program is under NASA's Applied Sciences Program, and its national office is at the Hampton center.

In Virginia, DEVELOP partners with the Secretary of Technology's office to leverage NASA know-how.

David E. Bowles, NASA Langley's new director, calls the partnership a "great example of using data we gather from space to benefit people here on our own planet."

And Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement last week that it's "a great way to maximize our resources and ensure Virginia is at the forefront of 21st century science and innovation."

At The Williamsburg Winery, president and CEO Patrick Duffeler II calls the technology a "wonderful tool for us."

"We use overhead imagery in our planning," Duffeler said. "We didn't use to, and we had access to the first images and were absolutely amazed at what we saw. One vineyard in particular — our five-acre block of merlot — has in essence what amounts to be three stripes running through it which you could not discern from the ground but which you can see in overhead photography.

"And ultimately the development of the vine is very, very different based on the underlying soil patterns," he said. "The overhead photography has enabled us to identify what in essence are three different parcels within one vineyard, and allows us to treat those rows very differently. And with that, we're able to maximize not only quality but quantity."

The wine industry is big business in Virginia, and getting bigger.

In 1979, the state had only six wineries and 286 acres devoted to growing wine grapes. Today, there are more than 300 commercial and noncommercial wineries and 3,500 acres in production. Now Virginia ranks as the fifth-largest producer of wine grapes in the country, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The economic impact is hefty, too: The wine industry contributes about $750 million a year to Virginia's economy and supports nearly 4,800 jobs.

"One of the greatest challenges facing Virginia's world-class wine industry is the need to plant more grapevines so that fruit production can stay ahead of wine sales, which have reached record high levels over each of the last six years," Todd Haymore, secretary of agriculture and forestry, said last week.

The wine board says Virginia's climate and landscape provide countless sites well-suited to vineyards. Six of the country's 187 American Viticultural Areas are in Virginia: the Eastern Shore, Monticello, Northern Neck, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob and Shenandoah Valley. A viticultural area is a grape-growing region whose geographic features influence the wines it produces.

©2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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