Four viticulturists hired to help Texas wine industry flourish

COLLEGE STATION — The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has hired four viticulture program specialists to assist grape growers with challenges and educational information, officials said.

The positions, strategically located across the state, were funded by the Texas Legislature in acknowledging that Texas is the fifth leading wine producing state in the nation with more than 350 licensed wineries, and vineyard acreage has more than doubled over the past decade, according to Dr. Justin Scheiner, AgriLife Extension state viticulturist in College Station.

The new viticulturists and their locations are: Piere Helwi, High Plains and West Texas regions; Andrew Labay, Texas Hill Country; Fran Pontasch, Gulf Coast region; and, Michael Cook, North Texas region.

“The Texas wine industry has great potential,” said Dr. Dan Lineberger, head of the horticultural sciences department at Texas A&M University where the four will be academically connected. “We’re anxious to get this team in place, and we’re excited about the opportunities to work closer with new growers, current growers and members of the Texas wine industry.”

Lineberger said AgriLife Extension has had “an excellent relationship with the grape growing and wine industry since its inception,” and these specialists will help the industry continue to grow toward the future.

Fran Pontasch.  (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife)

Fran Pontasch. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife)

Pontasch, who is based in College Station,  previously served as a viticulture advisor with AgriLife Extension in the North Texas region. She has worked as a vineyard manager and vineyard consultant. Pontasch earned a bachelor’s in horticulture at Texas A&M and a master’s in biology from Sul Ross University where she studied Pierce’s Disease in grapes in the Davis Mountains.  

Michael Cook. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife)

Michael Cook. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife)

 Cook, who is based in Denton, has a bachelor’s in horticulture from Texas A&M and a master’s in viticulture from Fresno State University in California where he studied the effects of fruit zone light management and applied water on grapevine productivity and phenolic composition.

Helwi comes from Bordeaux, France where he recently completed a doctoral degree in enology from the University of Bordeaux. His dissertation research focused on the effects of nitrogen nutrition on aroma compounds in grapes and wine. He will assume his duties based in Lubbock on Feb. 15.

Andrew Labay.  (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife).

Andrew Labay. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife).

Labay has been working as an AgriLife Extension associate since 2010 in the viticulture program at the Fredericksburg Viticulture and Fruit Lab. He holds a master’s in functional plant biology from the University of Montpellier II in France and is pursuing a doctoral degree in horticulture at Texas A&M. He will be based in Fredericksburg beginning in June.

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