By Chris Gerling
As a lecturer in the department of food science, Kathy Arnink has helped develop the viticulture and enology major at Cornell University for eight years, teaching enology courses, advising and mentoring students, coordinating internships, and serving on the teaching steering committee. Prior to that, she taught at Wells College and was a researcher in the enology laboratory at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.
What inspired you to work with wine?
Initially, the desire after my undergraduate career to work (so I could eat) and for a job in a scientific research lab (so I could continue to learn) landed me at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. I was hired by Susan Rodriguez, one of many fantastic mentors I have had the good fortune to know and who is now the director of the Wine Sensory Lab at Fresno State, and she happened to work with wine microbiology. What keeps me in the enology field is the combination of basic science and interesting —and intriguingly quirky —wine industry people. There is always something new to learn.
How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
When I started working in an enology microbiology laboratory, the industry was still interested in finding yeast and bacteria strains that would 'get the job done.' Commercially, we wanted yeast strains that finished a fermentation cleanly and completely. We wanted bacteria for malolactic fermentations that would survive and convert all the malic acid to lactic acid, preferably before a winemaker wanted to bottle. There was a large amount of basic scientific knowledge we needed to create, to understand the microbial physiology of these organisms and encourage their survival. Today, wine microbiology is looking at the flavor contributions from different microbes. Questions revolve around what strains and genes can produce particular, positive attributes for certain wine styles, and what contributions can come from other microorganisms found in juice and wine. Wine microbiology research is moving in two directions, expanding our understanding of the microbial ecology of good wine production (the big picture) and looking more closely at control of genes in metabolomic research (the details).
What projects are going on in your lab right now?
I work with undergraduate research only. My most recent student, Melissa Aellen, isolated and identified some microbes from a cider that produced 'mousy' perception, a nasty fault found in ciders and wines. These particular organisms had not previously been linked to mousiness.
What courses do you teach?
I teach Introduction to Wines and Vines (lecture/lab), Grapes to Wines (lecture/lab), Wine Microbiology, Sustainability in Grape Growing and Wine Making, and Undergraduate Research Practices in Viticulture and Enology during the school year. In the summer, I teach an online course, Wine Basics for Home Winemakers, and CUVEE, a week-long continuing education course.
What is the one thing you hope students take away from your class?
I want students to leave my class excited to learn more about fermentations and knowing that they have the skills and background knowledge to continue learning on their own, for the rest of their lives.
What was the last wine you enjoyed?
It's always the last wine I tasted, so, looking at my recycling bin, a Bedell 2009 Merlot which was complex and very pleasant. However, I learn –or test myself on– something from every bottle, so I always enjoy a wine, even the faulty ones.
Chris Gerling is enology extension associate in the department of food science, based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.