“I was surprised,” says Jan Peter Nyrop, of the news that the New York Wine & Grape Foundation honored him with the 2023 Jim Finkle Industry Award in recognition of his achievements in the industry. “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything out of the ordinary. I was just doing my job as a faculty member and director. But now, I feel very fortunate and grateful to have my efforts recognized.”
The award named for Jim Finkle—former president of the International Federation of Wines and Spirits, a senior VP at Constellation Brands, a member of the executive committee of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United State and also a proud alum of Cornell University—is considered a distinct honor for anyone in the industry.
And for insiders in the wine industry, recognizing Nyrop with it was less surprising than a matter of due course. Nyrop enjoyed a four-decade career at Cornell University that saw him rise from assistant professor at the Geneva Entomology Department to director of Cornell AgriTech, with tens of millions of dollars in funding in its coffers and a vast swath of educational, research and technological programs under his keen supervision.
Nyrop says he saw his role as one part administrator, one part campus director.
“We decided to rebrand and expand how we defined and presented ourselves and what we actually did too,” Nyrop says, of his decision to tweak the name and role of AgriTech. When he joined as director in 2017, it was known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.
“We wanted to refocus our unique academic mission and the role of our research programs,” Nyrop explains. “Our academic programs are both part of Cornell, but also distinct. We wanted to make our offerings in Geneva synergistic with what Cornell offered in Ithaca, but not identical. Our ultimate goal was to create complimentary but different programs that would benefit both faculty and students.”
Driving Business and Innovation
He and his team—Nryop is quick to point out that every single accomplishment under his tenure would not have happened without “an incredible team effort from everyone at Agritech”—also expanded the purview of the program so that the AgriTech campus would not only include research facilities for wine, beer and agriculture, but also for food.
In June of 2022, Empire State Development approved funding for the Cornell Agriculture Food and Technology Park in partnership with AgriTech. The Park serves as a business incubator that supports companies and new technologies in the ag and food business. The 20,000 square foot facility provides manufacturing and lab spaces to startups in the ag businesses.
Nyrop also hired new faculty and secured funding for other new research facilities. Today, the AgriTech campus in Geneva includes tens of thousands of square feet of labs, an enology and brewing center, a 900-acre research farm, around 300 employees, 35 faculty members and 40 graduate students.
Supercharging Research and Academics
AgriTech is also, of course, synonymous with grapevine research, and Nyrop made the expansion of enological programs there central to his mission as Director.
In 2019, $68.9 million in federal funding was delivered to AgriTech for the construction and development of a world-class Grape Genetics Research Unit.
“That was a huge group effort,” Nyrop says. “The USDA and members of the wine industry across the country were instrumental in getting this funding. When it opens, it will be the world’s most advanced research facility for cool climate grapes. We will collaborate with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Cornell scientists.”
Nyrop sees the lab as not just a coup for the world of wine, but also for the wine industry in New York State, which delivers $6.65 billion in direct economic activity in New York, employs 71,950 people and draws 4.71 million visitors here. Indeed, it seems that without contending with the many challenges facing the industry, the strong growth witnessed in the past decade cannot continue at the same pace.
Researchers at the Grape Genetics Research Unit will tackle disease resistance, climate change, new and better grape varietals and blends, and superior non-GMO breeding technology, all with the goal of creating “significant advancements in sustainability, reduction in the use of pesticide and the ability to withstand wild and unpredictable temperature fluctuations,” Nyrop says. “Natural breeding and science can solve those problems. There are so many inherent genomic tools, and so many advancements in technology happening. It’s a matter of connecting the dots, and we can help do that at AgriTech.”
Nyrop will be there, overseeing and watching, even in retirement. While he no longer works as director, he will stay on and help open the Grape Center and continue his own research.
“The holy grail is keeping all the things we love about, say, Riesling,” Nyrop says. “But making it more disease resistant and adaptable to the climate. We’re so close to finding that holy grail.”
The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.