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5 Questions for Terry Acree

Faculty Focus

By Chris Gerling

Terry Acree

Terry Acree joined Cornell in 1968. A professor of food science at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, he is a biochemist who focuses on challenges in flavor chemistry, including wine, with particular emphasis on aroma chemistry.

What inspired you to work with grapes?

In August of 1968 I joined the faculty of the Food Research Department at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva as a biochemist working on flavor. Because my graduate work at Cornell involved the study of the molecular basis of sweet perception, my boss Willard Robinson wanted me to study wine aroma, its chemistry and perception. In November, Willard took me to lunch in Penn Yan with Charles Fournier who explained how he, along with his colleague Guy DeVeaux, could make very passable sparkling wine in the Champagne tradition with Labruscana grapes by harvesting them before they produced a lot of Foxy aroma, near veraison, and ameliorating their acid and sugar levels synthetically. I was hooked.

How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?

Over the last 50 years we have been very successful in determining the chemicals that cause odor in wines, but we’re now working to determine how these chemicals are perceived when we drink wine. Where does Riesling character come from? This is analogous to knowing the actors in a drama and asking what role they play without having a script that reveals how they interact. For example, Sauvignon Blanc can range from intensely green grassy to passion fruit-like to funky boxwood, but we don’t know how to define the subgroups of these wines chemically and perceptually. So, how do we communicate the perceptual quality of a particular Sauvignon Blanc to a subgroup of consumers that prefer it?

To do this we need brain scientists, psychologists and neurobiologists to use wine perception as their research model. I think the enology and viticulture program could use a psychophysics researcher to work with the extension specialists, flavor chemists, viticulturists and microbiologists that have been the backbone of wine research. We need to decode flavor chemistry in order to connect wine and culinary science to consumer perceptions.

What research projects are going on in your lab right now?

Now that we have the tools to define wine aroma chemically, we need to study perception. At the moment we are developing a new psychophysical tool to study perception. We call it the Sniff Olfactometer, and it marries olfactometry, psychological software, and the sniff bottles commonly used to study aroma. Using the Sniff Olfactometer, we study the perception of individual components as their relative concentration changes in mixtures, with the intent of decoding flavor chemistry.

What courses do you teach, and what do you hope students take away from your class?

Starting in 1994, Thomas Henick-Kling, Harry Lawless and I began the development of FS4300, Understanding Wine (adding Beer a few years later). The class began with 16 students and last year was filled (with a limit of 120) the week pre-enrollment opened. From the beginning we continually modified the class to reflect our changing understanding of the science of wine. This presents and reinforces the fact that quality wine is an engineered product of scientific thinking. The art of wine production is based on the chemical and biological sciences.

What is the secret to pairing wine with holiday meals?

The perfume odor of cis-rose oxide in Gewürztraminer and the petroleum note from 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronapathalene in Riesling bind the flavor of turkey and rosemary to the wines, making the meal whole and complete. With Chardonnay or Pinot Gris the dinner is just a collection of unrelated dishes.