Man’s local studies may lead to even better Virginia wines

Posted: April 17, 2014

The Winchester Star

At right, Hickey pours some wine that he made at the research center.
Cain Hickey, a doctoral student at the Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, talks about his efforts in growing grapes for winemaking. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
“So I grew up, my whole childhood, I was surrounded by grapes,” said Cain Hickey. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)


A Virginia Tech doctoral student has been doing field work in Frederick County for almost four years that may help the state’s wine producers decide what changes — if any — they might make when growing the grapes they use.

Cain Hickey, 31, is a student in the university’s Department of Horticulture and has been working primarily at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center — located southwest of Winchester — since May 2010.

He is studying the effects of light and temperature exposure on grapes that are used to make wine — particularly Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes, which are widely grown in Virginia.

“There’s a lot of research that suggests that light and temperature have an effect on compound synthesis in grapes, and those compounds ... are important for the sensory aspects [such as taste and smell] of the resultant wines,” Hickey said Wednesday. “...Light and temperature can affect these compounds, which in turn affects how the wine turns out.”

Hickey’s interest in researching grapes and wine stemmed from growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“There’s lots of grapes, carpets of grapes everywhere,” he said. “So I grew up, my whole childhood I was surrounded by grapes, and my friends’ parents owned wineries and so I worked in them... [I thought] ‘I really like research and I really like grapes, so why don’t I go into grape research?’”

Hickey has been able to document the effects of different levels of exposure by holding tasting events for wine drinkers at Virginia Tech, located in Blacksburg. Based on those findings, he could potentially give wine producers data showing a correlation between the effects of light and temperature on grapes and what wine drinkers prefer.

However, Hickey said, there’s unlikely to be a “silver bullet” that produces better tasting or selling wine.

“We hope that these are important and part of the story, but there’s hundreds and hundreds of compounds that can affect the sensory perception of wine,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet, that’s not what we’re after. What we’re after is trying to make a connection with compounds we are measuring to the sensory analysis of the wines.

“...There’s all these different varieties within the red and white [grapes and wines], there can’t be one best way for all of them.”

Hickey’s research will be finished either after this year’s growing season or next year’s.

— Contact Matt Armstrong at