Back to top

Wine 911: The New York State Wine Analytical Laboratory Re-launches after 25 Years


By Amanda Garris

Anna Mansfield
Assistant professor of food science Anna Katharine Mansfield directs the New York State Wine Analytical Laboratory.

Marauding bacteria and wayward chemical reactions can drive fermentation awry, but for New York State wineries help is just a phone call away. After more than 25 years of service, the New York State Wine Analytical Lab (NYSWAL) is celebrating its re-launch with new equipment and enhanced capabilities.

"People come to us for two reasons: Quality assurance and troubleshooting," said Ben Gavitt, the research and extension support specialist for the lab since its inception in 1989. "As the industry has matured, many wineries now have the equipment to perform basic measurements in-house. We've expanded our capability to offer more advanced analytical methods as well as analysis for distilleries."

A typical job begins with an urgent phone call from a winemaker who has realized something is wrong: fermentation has stopped prematurely, a wine is unexpectedly cloudy, or it smells "off."

The first diagnostic uses one of the lab's most sensitive instruments: Ben Gavitt's nose. With more than 30 years of experience in winemaking and wine analysis, Gavitt is an expert in flawed wines.

Ben Gavitt
Extension support specialist Ben Gavitt has used both his trained nose and analytical methods to diagnose and confirm wine flaws since 1989.

Chemical and microbial analyses are used to confirm the problem, and for most clients, the news is good.

"Nine times out of ten, the wine can be remediated and the product saved," said Gavitt. "If not, we can give them guidance on how to prevent it in the future."

For complex problems, clients also have access to the expertise within the Cornell Food Science department, which includes specialists in juice processing, microbiology, and aroma and flavor chemistry.

Through a new collaboration with the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab in Bradfield Hall, the NYSWAL now offers rapid analysis of trace elements like copper and iron that can affect wine stability. They have also added the capacity to measure compounds that contain the essential yeast nutrient nitrogen, which can be too low in grape juice to support healthy fermentation. And their new GC-FID can accurately measure the amount of alcohol in the state's sweeter beverages, including late harvest dessert wines and fruit wines.

For the state's new artisan distilleries, the NYSWAL provides sensory evaluation and analysis of ethanol—the "good" alcohol— and methanol, a federally regulated fermentation byproduct that can accumulate during distillation.

The NYSWAL continues to offer standard analyses for juice and wine, including pH, acidity, alcohol, acids, microbial analysis of faulty wines, tests of wine stability, small scale trials of winemaking additives, and sensory appraisal.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer based in Geneva, NY.