By Liz Potasek
Wine tasting is one of the job perks when you work in the Grape Breeding and Enology Project at the Arboretum’s Horticultural Research Center (HRC). That’s not to say Research Professional Colin Zumwalde’s job is all tasting wine and discussing flavor profiles, but after long seasons of starting and transplanting seeds, training grapevines, harvesting grapes and maintaining the vineyard, tasting the fruits of his labor serves as a reminder of why the hard work is important. “I’m passionate about our research because I know it’s helping grape growers across the state get better quality grape varieties in their hands,” he says, “as well as helping the prospering wine industry continue to be innovative and make good quality wines that can stand up to the rest of the country’s wine regions.”
Zumwalde has worked at the HRC for five consecutive seasons, but he got his start as a horticulture intern in 2011 while he was a University of Minnesota student and he worked with the vineyard crew for a season in 2012, as well. “I sincerely feel that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world,” Zumwalde says. “Being able to work hands-on with plants day in and day out is a dream for me.
What do your job duties involve?
Along with my wonderful co-workers on the Grape Breeding and Enology Project, I perform a whole host of different tasks, depending on what part of the season we are in. The majority of my time is dedicated to the vineyard management of our 12 acres of research plots. Vineyard management tasks include (but are not limited to) pruning, training the vines, canopy management, starting and transplanting seeds in the greenhouse, planting our nursery and vineyards, undervine weed management, harvesting the grapes, and continuous upkeep of our treillis infrastructure. This variety of work throughout the season keeps us very busy, but also keeps things exciting and always changing for me.
I also help our grape breeder execute grape breeding crosses, evaluate grapevine seedlings and taste fruit during certain times throughout the season. At the beginning of each season we perform one of the most exciting tasks, which is the wine sensory panel where we try and discuss the wines that were made the season before.
Why are you passionate about the work at the HRC?
I sincerely feel that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. Being able to work hands-on with plants day in and day out is a dream for me. By working at the HRC, I’m affiliated with both the Arboretum and the Department of Horticulture at the University of Minnesota. It’s really an honor to work for such a great institution and to be part of the cutting-edge research in the grape breeding industry.
I’m passionate about our research because I know it’s helping grape growers across the state get better quality grape varieties in their hands, as well as helping the prospering wine industry continue to be innovative and make good quality wines that can stand up to the rest of the country’s wine regions.
What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?
Throughout my childhood, I have the greatest memories of our entire extended family going up north for several days of camping and fishing every summer. This spurred my love for the great outdoors and spending time outside. In high school, I embarked on a 30-day canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters through a program called Voyagers. When I came back, I became obsessed with identifying trees, native plant species, and exploring new forests and state parks.
These outdoor experiences led me to pursue a degree in Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota. While in school, I started to take classes in Horticulture Sciences, as well, and I quickly fell in love with this applied science and its hands-on labs and classes that came with it.
What or who inspired your career path?
My parents were never avid gardeners while I was growing up, but they encouraged me to follow my passions and to do what I love. This allowed me to pursue all my interests in the great outdoors and in gardening. I thank them so much for allowing me to keep an open mind on what I would like to do in life. I am so thankful that they’ve nurtured my passion for plants and growing.
Also, during my Arboretum internship in 2011, I rotated through the programs at the HRC and met my now coworkers John and Jenny Thull. The Thulls were the ones that introduced me to grape growing and the world of viticulture. Once I dipped my toes into it, I immediately fell in love with not only the science behind grape growing, but also the art of it. John and Jenny not only continue to be great colleagues of mine, but also wonderful mentors to me, which keeps fueling my passion for grape growing and breeding.
Do you have a home garden?
My wife and I moved into our first house just last year, so my garden at home is more in the planning phases. I am so excited to finally have a yard to design anyway we feel fit. With that said, my gardening style and design is based around using perennial fruits and vegetables and incorporating native plant areas throughout to attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
Some of the plants that I am excited to plant and work with in my garden are Honeyberry, Gooseberry, Raspberry, Black Currants, Plum tree, Apple trees, and of course some grapevines. I want to try to make my garden as diverse as possible and use unique cold-hardy fruiting plants that not only taste great, but look nice in the landscape. My wife, newborn son, and I are looking forward to many days of peaceful gardening.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
One of the most challenging parts of our job is keeping up with the very fast and crazy growing season we have here in Minnesota. There are a lot of tasks throughout the growing season and the success of them hinges on not falling behind while the grapevines start putting on a lot of growth. Having a firm understanding as to what needs to be done at certain times of the season is critical and makes all the difference in keeping ahead of the vines’ growth.
By far the most rewarding job in the vineyard is the harvest. All our hard work from the entire season comes down to this point. Throughout the season we have trained and evaluated these vines day in and day out, and now choosing which vines to harvest is one of the most exciting tasks. Knowing that we are harvesting fruit that is not found anywhere else in the world continues to fuel my passion and love for this research and grape breeding project. Harvest time is always busy around the HRC but it is one of the most fun times.
As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers?
I encourage all growers to try grapevines in their garden or at their farm, but I would recommend starting small with one or two plants until you experience a few growing seasons with the vines. Growers and gardeners that take on too many vines at once can quickly feel overwhelmed and defeated if they don’t have the experience or the time to stay up with the vines’ growth.
Also, if you are deciding to grow grapevines, the site you choose can make a big impact on how the vines will grow. Avoid low lying areas where frost pockets occur and where the ground is overly saturated. Grapevines love full sun and well-drained soil. I know a lot of backyard gardens won’t have all these ideal attributes, and that is okay, but if you can keep in mind a few of these site characteristics, you will be well on your way to a healthier and happier grapevine.
How does your work impact Arb members or visitors in a meaningful way?
When we put on our Fall open house tour at the HRC or pour our newest research wines for the guests at the Arboretum’s Toast & Taste Event, it brings me so much joy to see how excited people are to talk to us about our grape research. Arboretum members and visitors are passionate about buying and supporting locally made products and businesses, and we work to help improve and innovate the local wine and grape growing industry so the public can enjoy the fruits of our labor for years to come.