A few days ago there was a wine tasting at the campus greenhouses on Valley Road, the latest in a long series. Why there and not some chi-chi location? The wines cannot be taken off campus. It's an interesting tale of how the University of Nevada, Reno, is helping develop a wine industry in a desert state, told by biochemist Danny Hopper.
Explain the tastings.
We’ve been doing tastings for, I think, about four years. The tastings started in our winery. And the tables we used would actually be our steel fermentation tanks that we would just flip upside down and have people sit around those. The current licensing that we have at the university is an experimental winery license, and that allows us to make wine in the winery but the wine can only be used for organoleptic, tasting purposes. So we can’t just sell any of the wine that we’re making. It has to stay on campus, and we use it for taste testing only. One of the many goals of the vineyard aside from the research is to first of all see what varieties grow well here in Reno. So we’ve more or less accomplished that through just a small survey. But there’s hundreds and hundreds of different types of grapevines out there. We’ve only grown 13 here but we have a good idea of what grows well. Another goal was then to make the wines from those grapes and taste them and determine what grapes grow well here and then what wines can be made well here. And that was sort of why we started the tastings.
Why do you also do off-campus tastings of commercial wines?
It’s basically like a class, for the lecture that we’re doing and then for the wines, cheese, crackers and the waters and things like that. They’re not huge money raisers for us but we like to educate people on wine, wine making, growing the grapes and things like that. So the tastings are a great platform for that because they bring a lot of people in. One of the biggest benefits of the wine tasting was the formation of the non profit group Nevada Vines and Wines. There is a group of people who were regulars to the wine tasting. We kept always talking about this is something that northern Nevada could do, this is something that Nevada should do. So through that, a non profit group was started that I’m a part of just by a group of people who came to the tastings. … The goal of Nevada Vines and Wines is to promote the wine industry in Nevada. We also have a relationship with the university, and that’s how those grapes are being planted out on the Main Station Farm. … So through Nevada Vines and Wines we have all these goals of establishing a wine industry here in Nevada. When I say establish, I mean to help further establish because there already are four commercial wineries in the state of Nevada. … A lot of the things that we want to do at Nevada Vines and Wines, we always kept coming back to, “Well, we can’t because of current laws in Washoe and Clark counties.” I’m sure you’re aware that in Nevada there’s a law in Nevada that any county over 100,000 [population], you can’t have a commercial winery. So finally myself and three other people were sort of tired of that so we decided to form the Nevada Wine Coalition, to help change the law. We hired a marketing firm to help us lobby.
If a barber or a dry cleaner asked you why a public university is growing grapes and making wines, what would you say?
The wine making is actually sort of a side project. I’m getting my PhD in biochemistry and we’re doing a ton of different research in biochemistry. We have multiple projects going on. Personally, my project is I’m investigating drought—how drought affects wine grapes. Wine grapes is a $162 billion economic impact in the United States. One of the major threats to the wine industry is drought. Here in the lab, my researches focus on investigating the drought response of different grape vine cultivars [plants created by selective breeding]. We have cultivars that are very drought-tolerant, and then we have some that are very drought-susceptible and I’ve been trying to find the gene, the protein, the hormones that are leading to those differences in drought tolerance that can then be further used in the future to better understand the drought response and also to develop more drought-resistant plants.