By Amanda Garris, adjunct assistant professor, Horticultural Sciences
Dr. Ramón Mira de Orduña joined the Department of Food Science and Technology at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 2007. An associate professor of enology with research and teaching responsibilities, he has been instrumental in developing the enology undergraduate program and establishing the teaching winery. Formerly faculty at the University of Guelph, Mira de Orduña brings to the Cornell Viticulture and Enology program expertise in the biology and physiology of lactic acid bacteria and yeast.
What inspired you to work with wine?
I never consciously planned to dedicate my professional life to wine, but upon closer analysis I realize that I have never been particularly far from a bottle of wine, either. My parents hail from winemaking regions in Baden, Germany, and Valencia, Spain, and I was raised in a little winemaking village in Baden. As far back as I can remember, wine was never lacking on our table and was important for the overall economy of the region, too. As kids, we would spend fun hours compressing stalks or removing grapes from trailers with a large vacuum tube during harvest for nothing but a tiny glass of fresh must. During my undergraduate studies, I worked for an organic wine wholesaler and retailer, frequently travelling around Germany and Eastern France—Württemberg, Franken, Hessen, Palatinate, Alsace and Baden. After graduation I had the choice to run a wine shop with a friend, work for a pharmaceutical company in Barcelona, or study for a Ph.D. in wine microbiology in New Zealand, which I did. After a postdoctoral project at the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute (Ontario, Canada), and five years on faculty at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada), I accepted the position of associate professor of enology at Cornell, where I have continued working with wine yeast and bacteria.
What are the major challenges in your field?
One of the major challenges I face in my program is finding the balance between the academic necessities of the position and the needs of the wine industry. As researchers, we are required to publish work in scientific, peer-reviewed journals. This may result in studies that are more reproducible and generally valid, but of lesser value from an immediate, practical point of view. Conducting research in a way that satisfies both the scientific community and considers current challenges in the wine industry requires a careful and broad approach. Communication with local winemakers through our conferences, especially the New York Wine Industry Workshop, and extension are very valuable tools in defining a research program that has international recognition and local relevance. I expect that Cornell's partnership with the wine industry will further grow with our teaching commitment and allow us to confront difficult times.
What projects are going on in your lab right now?
Sulphur dioxide (SO2), a commonly used wine additive, is an area where wine quality and microbiology intersect with public perception. Through local winemakers or direct inquiries, we have taken notice of rumors that "European wines have less SO2 than local wines." It is correct that the EU has recently lowered the maximum legal SO2 levels in dry white and red wines to 200 and 150 mg/liter, respectively. However, off-dry and sweet wines can contain significantly more SO2. There also appears to be consumer pressure to lower the concentrations of wine preservatives, especially SO2 and sorbic acid. So, one of our most long-term research programs has been studying the formation and degradation of SO2-binding compounds in wines with the aim of helping our industry to reduce SO2 levels. Ph.D. candidate Erhu Li (China) is involved in this effort, as well as Nick Jackowetz (Canada), who is known to some local winemakers through his sampling program to identify winemaking operations that contribute to higher bound SO2 levels. Three other Ph.D. students, Alejandra Aguilar Solis (Mexico), Hongfei He (China) and Charles Frohman (New Jersey), are studying the role of yeast lees in wine transformations, the nutrition of lactic acid bacteria, as well as the dynamics of yeast fermentation at high sugar concentrations, such as in the fermentation of late harvest wines or icewines. All projects aim at better understanding bacterial and yeast metabolism and generating tools that allow winemakers to better control vinification and wine quality. In the past, we also extensively studied the use of simultaneous alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, a method that is now being used by some winemakers to successfully ferment difficult wines–for example, those with high acidities or alcohol levels.
What courses do you teach?
I cover wine microbiology topics in Understanding Wine and Beer, a scientific wine appreciation course for nonmajors, and provide guest lectures in several microbiology courses. However, my main teaching effort is the Winemaking Theory and Practice courses, which span fall and spring terms and include lectures as well as practical work in our teaching winery. The courses cover the entire winemaking spectrum from grape sensory analysis to fermentation, ageing, fining, stabilizations, filtration and bottling. In addition, I also focus on sensory evaluation, laws, and regulation—admittedly a less popular, yet essential topic. An overarching theme is winery sustainability, especially energy, water and wastewater efficiency, subjects which are treated in depth. I enjoy working with students in the winery on the production of wines and try to create an environment that allows for their curiosity to develop. I also highlight the significance of a cross-disciplinary approach to winemaking, which involves financial, marketing and technical considerations. Much of the course content on winery practices cannot be found in textbooks. Hence, it is also important that students learn to understand the importance of critical observation to evaluate methods and workflows.
What project would you pursue, if funding was unlimited?
If funding was unlimited, the sky was the limit—and I would not have to sleep—I would enlarge my research group and equipment infrastructure in order to address next generation microbiological, technological and analytical challenges. For example, I would like to see new developments for cheap, reliable, rapid and simple methods for microbiological and chemical analysis. The final outcome could be a "lab on a chip" that would allow us to assess the microbial communities and chemical parameters in grape musts and wines on the spot, permitting us to adapt our winemaking to anticipate problems (stuck and sluggish alcoholic or malolactic fermentations or stability or taint issues) before they ever appear. I would also be interested in investigating how we can use winery technology more efficiently with regards to energy and water waste.