By Chris Gerling
Chris Gerling joined the Extension Enology Lab in February of 2008. An extension associate for enology, he works with the New York wine industry to provide beginner and continuing educational programs and applied research. Chris has worked as a research and commercial winemaker and now manages the Vinification & Brewing Technology Laboratory.
What inspired you to work with wine?
I took the Hotel wine class my senior year at Cornell, and I was fascinated that we had a local industry doing this. I wanted to learn more about it. I had worked in the entomology department during my college summers, and it happened that the technician I had worked for knew the winemaking technician and they needed help that fall. After the fall, I worked in the viticulture lab. When that project was done, I returned to the enology lab and then started graduate work after that.
How would you describe your job?
We try to provide workshops, newsletter articles and web resources that reflect what is going on in commercial wine cellars and labs, and we try to do practical experiments that answer questions winemakers are asking. I am a part of getting a lot of projects rolling, and I am a part of helping a lot of projects continue. I try to facilitate and fill in gaps where they're apparent. It makes for a lot of bouncing in between things. My job is fun in that no two days are ever exactly the same. My job can be frustrating in that no two days are ever exactly the same.
What questions are you trying to answer through your research?
We are trying to look at acid in ways that people may have neglected previously. In warmer places it doesn't so much matter what the composition of your organic acids are, so researchers have done some fairly basic things and then turned their attention elsewhere. We are now looking at the ratios of organic acids in juices and wines and trying to find new ways to predict and manipulate the relationship. We're interested in tartaric and malic acid, of course, but we're also seeing a lot more succinic acid in places we didn't expect. The "Minnesota" varieties, with their riparia heritage and very high titratable acidities, have made this work all the more relevant. We're also finding that just understanding and measuring something so "basic" as acid is more complicated than one would imagine.
What do you see as the major challenges facing the industry?
Our industry is always living with New York's "consistently variable" weather. Growing grapes is a challenging task anywhere, but I have the utmost respect for people who do it around here. Tough conditions mean we are going to start out behind when it comes to scale and cost. Harvest happens all too often because of external forces like cold or disease as opposed to when the grower and winemaker feel optimal maturity has been reached. Once the wine is in the bottle, like any small business we have trouble finding markets and getting attention. New York City remains a tantalizing opportunity, so close and yet so far. There is also little to no outside investment, so capital for upgrades and replanting is always difficult to obtain.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of the job revolves around the fact that we have so many grapes being grown in so many places. We see juices and wines that are probably unique in the world. Even if someone else is growing the particular grape in another place, the product is distinct, and in our case that can mean very distinct. I think it's great that people are willing to experiment with so many varieties and styles. Our industry is now reaching a point where it may be appropriate to "focus on our strengths," but it's my fervent hope that we're all learning as much as we possibly can from this time of experimentation. That learning process is a job for all of us, whether we are researchers or commercial producers.
Chris Gerling is enology extension associate in the department of food science, based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.