By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor

Photo at right shows the Data Layers map on; below is Professor Alan Lakso, courtesy Cornell

Cornellmap1If you have ever thought, even for a brief moment, that owning a vineyard and winery would be fun, consider this: The first decision often turns out to be the biggest mistake.

That decision, of course, is what grapes to plant, and where. 

With support from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, Cornell has launched an ambitious program and website dedicated to that pursuit. The site is

"We're seeing more people who want to get away from the corporate grind," professor Alan Lakso told me. "They sort of get caught up in the romance of starting a vineyard. Our goal is to help them make the best decisions before a few years have passed and they're looking around, asking what might have gone wrong. Because at that point we often have to say, 'There's not much you can do here. Plant somewhere else.'"

Lakso, along with his colleague Tim Martinson and other members of the Cornell staff, have to tell surprised winery owners the hard truth. Undoing a mistake can cost tens of thousands of dollars and many years. "You can waste a good site with the wrong variety, and you can waste good varieties on the wrong site," Lakso said.

The website's most valuable tool is the interactive map, which is easy to use even for those with no scientific background. It can be used to show color-coded temperature shading, showing which parts of a particular region are more likely to see temperatures fall below -5 degrees farenheit, or -10, or -15. It can also show the average growing degree days for given areas, or slope, or drainage.

It's cool stuff. If you're into that sort of thing, it's extremely cool stuff.

But it has a long way to go. 

"Our eventual goal is to allow users to click on a variety, like cabernet sauvignon," Lakso explained. "Then the map would show the conditions necessary to grow consistently good or ripe cabernet. The map would reveal where these conditions converged, indicating where a new cabernet vineyard would be likely to be successful."


Even in the Finger Lakes, I asked? 

"Sure, there are sites for it," Lakso said. "Far fewer sites for it than we'd find for riesling, but that doesn't mean cabernet can't succeed in the Finger Lakes. And the website will be designed to reveal those locations."

To get to that point, Cornell has a great deal more research to do. And they'll need to use more advanced technology to improve the map details. For now, the map is not nearly as specific as Lakso would like to see.

For example, Lakso explained that the so-called "Banana Belt" does exist. That refers to the southeast side of Seneca Lake, where growers like to say a combination of factors makes for slightly warmer sites. "To an extent, it's true," Lakso told me. "A major factor is wind, which can blow straight down the lake from the north in the winter, emptying out around Hector. If the wind shifts, as it can, that warm air is gone. But they tend to get that warm winter wind off the lake, which is protective."

So why, I wondered, doesn't the "Banana Belt" show up more visibly on the map?

"Right now, the map reflects a measurement of blocks of area, and they're rather large," Lakso said. "We're talking about three miles. Do you know how much can change in three miles? I've seen one single vineyard with six degrees difference from simply the top to the bottom. That's not uncommon. But the current map can't reflect that."

Cornell has 90 temperature sensors that can take updated readings every 30 minutes, but Lakso is hoping for more advanced aerial imaging, too. Improving the map will require more funding, and Foundation president Jim Trezise, who calls this one of his all-time favorite projects, is pushing hard for it.