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Paolo Sabbatini, assistant professor, Department of Horticulture

Paolo Sabbatini

Michigan, long known for its auto industry, is literally branching out and growing another industry—grapes and wine production. According to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, there are 101 commercial wineries producing more than 1.3 million gallons of Michigan wine annually, up from 32 wineries in 2002.

MSU’s Paolo Sabbatini has been part of this effort for six years doing research and working directly with those in the industry to create high-quality varieties and to improve the business in the state.

“My program has a strong applied component,” Sabbatini says. “I have a lot of cooperation with different wineries, different grape growers, and different winemakers.”

Sabbatini, who is originally from Italy, spent almost a year at MSU working on his PhD with Jim Flore, professor of horticulture.

“I was looking to do some experiments that would be difficult to do at my university,” Sabbatini says. “At Michigan State, they had the equipment and the laboratory that allowed me to finish my degree. I moved here and was amazed at the department.”

Two years later, Sabbatini was offered a postdoctoral position at MSU. Two years after that, he accepted a full-time position in the department.

“I was not planning that because I had a job back in Italy,” Sabbatini says. “But the challenges and opportunities I saw in the position were so good for me that I wanted to stay.”

Given the department’s work with grapes and wines, Sabbatini thought that his background would fit well and that he could do something good by working at MSU. He was also lured by the university’s strong reputation in viticulture.

“I’m Italian,” Sabbatini says. “When you are in Italy, and you say ‘horticulture,’ the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State ranks in the top three departments in the world. To get a job at the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University, a land-grant institution founded as a college of agriculture, was very challenging but at the same time very exciting.”

Today, Sabbatini works with many different Michigan growers and winemakers, including Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Michigan. He’s currently working with Lutes to better understand the interaction between the vines and the environment and the kind of wine that can be produced.

Sabbatini also is working on a project at MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station near Traverse City, Michigan, that involves 50 different grape varieties. He’s looking for other varieties of grapes from places like France, Italy, and Spain that can do well in Michigan’s climate.

“We have a problem in Michigan where we can produce very, very nice white varieties—Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay—they’re going to do really well here,” Sabbatini says. “The problem is the reds. The reds require a little bit longer season and a higher heat. The solution is to go around the world and find red varieties that produce high-quality fruit perfectly in our climate.”

Sabbatini says that working directly with the industry and applying his research to improve it is the most exciting part of his job.

“If I can find physiological explanations for problems that the growers have in the vineyard and they can solve the problem, that’s something that excites me a lot,” he says. “Understanding why we have a problem, figuring out how we can solve the problem, and applying a solution—that’s kind of a dream.”

For growers, it means producing higher-quality fruit and reducing the cost of production. Sabbatini says that for the state of Michigan, it means a better reputation, new jobs, new wineries, more acres being farmed, more people working, more wine sold, and more revenue. All are important components that can help Michigan’s economy.

“I think you just look around Michigan and you see these booming wineries and the huge interaction that exists between wine and tourism,” Sabbatini says. “It’s everything related to what we call agritourism. I think if there is a rising star in agritourism in Michigan, it’s the wine industry.”