By Chris Gerling
Patricia Howe joined the Department of Food Science as a lecturer in enology this semester after over 30 years in wine production in Napa, California. With technical and production experience in several international wine companies, including Moët Hennessy, Seagram’s, and Beam Wine Estates, she has also started and sold a wine sensory consulting business and currently owns perhaps the smallest square footage winery in the United States. Although her master’s degree is in sensory science, she has written extensively on analytical issues for the wine industry and worked as an analytical chemist at ETS Laboratories. She has taught enology at U.C. Davis, Napa Valley College, and VESTA, the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance.
What inspired you to work with wine?
Old fashioned dumb luck. As a young undergraduate I was in the pre-med program at U.C. Davis, which I found miserably competitive, although I enjoyed the biology. Then fate stepped in. I found myself in the wonderful introductory wine class taught by professor of enology Vern Singleton and learned that the fermentation science degree requirements were basically identical to the pre-med program. An internship at Domaine Chandon followed, and I never looked back. My colleagues might not be physicians, but they are a lot friendlier.
What are the major challenges in your field?
Enology is a relatively small and specialized field. In large wineries, there is usually at least one person on staff with a strong technical background, and in many states there is at least one trained extension scientist focused partly on wine. The other pool of enologists includes those providing services and supplies to the industry. Enology is not as “site-driven” as viticulture is; there is no reason we can’t cross geographical lines and share our experiences and research in a more productive manner. I see a broad challenge to the field of enology in finding a way to connect this diverse set of scientists in ways which would drive the field forward.
What courses do you teach?
I currently teach the Winemaking Theory and Practice course, which in the spring is focused on wine production from post primary fermentation to bottling. Wine is a complex media, part solution and part colloid, and just when you think you know everything, you see or experience an unexpected phenomena that requires relearning it all again. Keeping an open mind and being conscious of the details when making wine allows you to notice these surprises and learn from them. I hope to teach the students enough about winemaking theory and practice to let them get the most from these little mysteries. My vision would be to provide the students in this program an opportunity to increase their understanding and appreciation of the real science of wine (enology) and its intrinsic cross-disciplinary nature, and for them to take advantage of the new equipment and teaching winery to explore and apply this knowledge in their scientific projects.
What is the one thing you hope students take away from your class?
It's a lot to ask for, but I hope they learn that they must never stop learning. One class, one degree, one whatever won't be enough to understand everything about any subject. I'm not sure how exactly to teach that. Wine is a great subject for ongoing education, as it involves nearly every discipline in some form or another —you've heard many times about the "art and science" of winemaking, but there is truth in it.
What is your favorite wine and food pairing?
The one I haven't tried yet! One of the best parts of working at Domaine Chandon was when we would take all our new releases of sparkling wines down to our restaurant, and Phillip Jeanty would bring out little tastes of everything he made or wanted to serve. We'd spend the morning and much of the afternoon trying various combinations, to see what "worked". I can tell you from personal experience that even professionals can still be surprised by how some unexpected pairings can turn out well; the pleasant shock when they do is priceless.
Chris Gerling is enology extension associate in the department of food science, based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.