Megan Hall decided early on that being a good viticulturist would mean knowing something about grape disease.
“In my first vineyard management class I realized there was a lot of disease in the field,” said Hall, doctoral student in the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology in the School of Integrative Plant Science. “Much of what we did involved scouting for disease, as well as evaluating and treating it. So I got really interested in microbiology and plant-pathogen interactions.”
That initial interest propelled her thesis research into the biology and management of sour rot, a disease of grapes linked to significant yield losses and reduction in juice quality. Through her research, she has shown that the disease is caused by colonization of injured berries by wild yeast, followed by bacterial oxidation of ethanol to acetic acid, and that symptoms will only develop when Drosophila (fruit flies) are present.
Her research into this pernicious disease prevalent in wine-growing regions around the world earned her the 2017 Presidents’ Award for Scholarship in Viticulture from the American Society of Enology and Viticulture (ASEV), which includes a $12,500 scholarship.
Wayne Wilcox, professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology and Hall’s thesis adviser, said he takes pride in the award going to a Cornell student, given that the ASEV memberships is dominated by academic and industry personnel from the West Coast.
Prior to Hall and Wilcox’s research, growers had no tools for managing sour rot because the causal organisms of the disease were unknown. Now Hall and the team can share the results of several years of spray trials, which demonstrate that the combined use of antimicrobial and insecticide sprays before symptoms develop, or soon after, significantly control the disease.
“The sour rot project matters a lot to the growers in the Finger Lakes region of New York,” said Hall. “They were the ones who originally brought it to Wayne’s attention, so they’re eager to see our results and to try anything we’ve tried. It’s been amazing to see the immediate impact of our work.”
Wilcox credited Hall for her collaborative, can-do attitude. In addition to initiating the sour rot project, she has cataloged microbial diversity on developing grapes with Lance Cadle-Davidson, plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture–Agricultural Research Service’s Grape Genetics Research Unit. She also works with Greg Loeb, professor in the Department of Entomology, studying the contribution of fruit flies to sour rot development.
Hall has received several other awards during her graduate study including the Frederick Dreer Award, which supported research on grape pathology in Tasmania. In 2016, she received the Graduate Student Presentation Award at the Northeast Division Meeting of the American Phytopathological Society. She will be a featured speaker during a graduate student showcase at the national APS meeting in August.
She has worked in vineyards in Oregon and New York and currently operates Wicked Water, a winery and retail shop in Geneva, with her husband.
Magdalen Lindeberg is assistant director at the School of Integrative Plant Science and senior research associate in the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. Jennifer Savran Kelly is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.