By Gavin Sacks
Each summer, most undergraduate Viticulture and Enology (VIEN) majors head to the vineyards and wineries for internships, but a few venture into labs instead. These students have limited time — approximately ten weeks, a blip in the lifecycle of a grapevine — to study an important question in wine and grapes. Several VIEN majors embarked on their seminal experience in independent research with Cornell faculty in Horticulture and Food Science in Geneva, NY, this summer.
Johnston Moore, a junior VIEN major, worked with Food Science faculty Gavin Sacks and Ramón Mira de Orduña to characterize the chemical cause of "pinking," an unwanted pink color that can spontaneously develop in white wine during storage. This phenomenon, not limited to New York, has been reported sporadically for years, but the cause is unknown. Johnston tackled the first step, testing methods to induce the pink discoloration in the lab so that the pink compound can be identified.
Whitney Beaman, a Food Science and VIEN senior, worked in the Mira de Orduña lab on multiple projects, from raising fruit flies — a common sanitation issue in wineries — to identifying appropriate fermentation practices for producing high-end fruit vinegar from apples and grapes in New York state.
Her favorite research experience was working with modern food analysis instrumentation — namely, "gas chromatograph-olfactometry" (GC-O) technique — where the "detector" is a human nose. "Using my nose as a component of a much more technical compound isolation, that was interesting," Beaman said.
Not all of the VIEN undergraduate scholars worked on enology projects. Michael Tracy and David Bower, VIEN seniors and Nelson Shaulis Summer Scholars, worked with Alan Lakso on vine physiology in Cabernet franc.
Specifically, Tracy studied the impact of cluster thinning on vine growth and a key aroma compound: the herbaceous-smelling isobutylmethoxypyrazine (IBMP). Bower experimented with shading whole vines at different ten-day intervals during the growing season to determine the effects on shoot growth and berry development, and to understand how the grapevine will allocate its limited carbon resources when light is limited. Both students are analyzing their data and hope that their research will contribute progress in understanding fruit quality and crop load.
Invariably, the early days of any new research experience proceed slowly due to false starts, outright mistakes, or even a lack of intuition regarding where the paper towels are stored.
"There was a lot of 'going back to the drawing board' before we could make any progress, more than I expected," said Beaman.
However, by the end, the VIEN undergraduate researchers were all wishing they could add on a few extra weeks to the summer.
"I really miss my summer in Geneva, being able to focus for eight hours each day on research," said Moore. "You have time to try lots of things, and time to be wrong."
Their time as researchers helps students refine their post-graduation plans.
"This experience has made me consider research for a career, something I had never thought about before," says Moore.
Tracy agreed: "After this summer, I have a much larger appreciation for research and may pursue more in graduate school."
These types of hands-on experiences — in research labs, in vineyards, and in wineries — are essential features of Cornell's Viticulture and Enology program. By providing diverse opportunities for our undergraduates, we enable them to better prepare for their future professions and to make informed career choices. This past summer, like many great discoveries in the laboratory, one of the questions the students answered — "What do I want to do after I finish my VIEN major?" — wasn't the original question they'd set out to solve.
Gavin Sacks is an assistant professor of Enology in the Department of Food Science at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.