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Student Focus

New Student Winery Transforms Enology Instruction at Cornell 

Article by Alex Koeberle​
Photos by Robyn Wishna

Photo 1. Left to right, students Connor Roberson ‘17, Taylor Simaz ‘16, Ming-Yi Chou, Professor Arnink and teaching assistant Camila Tahim review the filling and operation of the Europress PX1 100 L membrane press.  This fully automatic open tank membrane press has a capacity of only 130 lbs of whole or 230 lbs of crushed grapes, and is the only one in the United States.

From harvesting grapes in the field to bottling finished wines, a new student winery at Cornell is preparing students for the future of the wine industry.     

Opened in July 2013 the new student winery is part of the $105 million dollar renovation of Stocking Hall.  This 3,900 square foot facility features a number of small-scale winemaking tools designed to provide students with the ability to experiment with various winemaking options, analytical methods and winery processes.

The student winery bolsters the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ already robust major in Viticulture and Enology.  Formed in 2008, the program’s mission is “To increase student interest in and understanding of science by supplying a real world application.”  These new facilities advance this mission by integrating both theory and practice, which graduates will use to enter the wine industry or apply their diverse scientific background to other industries or graduate studies. 

The Stocking Hall facilities are a major upgrade from its previous facilities, housed at the Cornell Orchards. The key is having onsite facilities, says Kathleen Arnink, Lecturer in Viticulture and Enology. 

Now students take pride and ownership of this new facility.  Students want to be a part of the winery and they want to assist classmates in making their wines, says Gavin Sacks, Associate Professor of Viticulture and Enology.  It has provided a social hub where students get to know each other better, and they feel more connected to the major.

“I really enjoy the professional atmosphere,” says Kayla Winter ’15.  “Because we have all these tools at our disposal, we as students take more pride in our work and utilize everything we can to produce quality wine in our labs.” 

What sets this facility apart from others is the ability for students to produce smaller lot sizes.  This allows undergraduate students and faculty alike more freedom to experiment with winemaking techniques.  “The winery is home-winemaking size with professional equipment,” says Patricia Howe, Ph.D. ’15 and former Lecturer in Enology.

Every piece of equipment is scalable to standard equipment used by commercial wineries, providing students with practical instruction that can be applied to the wine industry and beyond. “We want students to see the technology and processes of the wine industry, but at a smaller scale,” says Dwayne Bershaw, Lecturer in Enology.

Smaller lot sizes allow instructors and students to explore and adjust winemaking parameters.   “Smaller-scale equipment means innovation and experimentation,” says Bershaw.

Photo 2. Students Lucy Goldberg ‘15 and Matthew Byrne ‘15 fill the 100-gallon Rieger tank with Marechal Foch grapes during production of a “carbonic maceration” style wine.  The tank, donated by Euromachines, has a removable top that facilitates filling; it can also be used as a red or white wine fermentation tank for larger student projects.

Flexibility is key.  With smaller lot sizes students can produce more variety with different outcomes, fundamental to scientific experimentation.  There is a difference between mimicking the industry versus teaching students the process.  “The lab can help tailor experiments to individual students,” Arnink says.   

A capstone project is required for all students in the Viticulture and Enology major, and new facilities provide ample opportunities for developing projects, says Arnink.  Conducted during a student’s senior year, Viticulture and Enology faculty envision this new winery as an integral part of developing projects geared towards each student. 

A diverse range of equipment allows faculty and students to craft experiments.  For example, two Scharffenberger grape presses – one open tank 100-liter capacity and a second closed tank 300-liter capacity – process grapes in much smaller quantities.  Starting with smaller batches means students can produce multiple lots over the course of the semester, rather than one single large batch as they did in the past. 

According to Sacks, in a teaching environment the grape-processing equipment itself can be treated as a variable for making wines.  In addition to the grape presses, the new facilities also showcase a Delta E1/F1 destemmer-crusher, 64 jacketed 15-gallon stainless steel tanks by Vance Metal Fabricators – a local business based in Geneva, New York, and even a 50-liter still for sparkling wines and beers. 

Students make wine in 50-liter lots – ideal for conducting smaller-scale experiments.  The student winery is not a production winery, meaning at the end of the day wines are only used for testing. By decreasing lot size, students can produce more wine lots for analysis while also reducing waste as wines are discarded after being tested.

Adaptability is central to the new student winery, and equipment hurdles had to be overcome in designing the facilities.  Small-scale can be a problem if end results are bottled wines, says Sacks.  For example, if bottling wines at a commercial scale too much wine would be lost in the tubing, rather than ending up in the bottles.  To solve this dilemma, the faculty in Viticulture and Enology worked with GAI Bottling and a local business, Prospero Equipment Company, to develop a five-gallon fill tank.  This innovative bottling line has the ability to produce screw-caps as well as corks.  “Students can change parameters such as what kind of closure to use, how much oxygen gets in, and how much carbonation for sparkling wines,” says Sacks. 

These facilities in Stocking Hall greatly differ from the Vinification and Brewery (V&B) Technology Laboratory at the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, in operation since the mid-90s.   The V&B is designed to support large-scale field experiments and vinification trials.  “With those, the goal is to try to do things in a replicated fashion with a large number of lots and minimal variation,” says Sacks. 

In contrast, the new student winery on Cornell’s campus is designed for experimentation, provides students a wide variety of options for trying out different winemaking practices. According to Sacks, this equipment will give students the tools to reinforce concepts learned in the classroom.

For example, finished wines need cold-stabilization before bottling to prevent potassium bitartrate sediments from forming in the bottle.  Explaining tartrate stability in the classroom has its limits, but with the new “CheckStab” tartrate stability/conductivity analyzer, students can measure and observe the process of tartrate precipitation for themselves. 

“These facilities can help students to work the equations needed to understand tartrate stability,” says Bershaw.  “This can be a very complex process to understand, but having the right equipment makes a huge difference.”

“It is critical to go from the classroom where students go over tartrate, to the winery where they can actually see potassium bitartrate crystals forming,” Sacks says.  “Then to the analytical support space where students can evaluate and see pictorially or graphically whether or not a wine is stable.”

Photo 3. Students Emily Oetting ‘17, Jon-Marc Leopold ‘15, Alex Brown ‘15 and Connor Roberson ‘17 (left to right) prepare to drain fermented Cabernet Franc into the vertical basket press using gravity.

Sacks describes the new facility as a “Three-part system:” the classroom, an in-winery component, and the analytical support component.  Students in Viticulture and Enology gain insight on new emerging patterns in the wine industry, and can then apply these concepts upon graduating. 

Viticulture and Enology students and faculty fully utilize a robust local wine industry, addressing common and unique regional challenges, including the cool climate, unique grape varieties, soils, and economic markets.  The new winery is another step to integrate students with local industry by using locally grown grapes, and interacting with local grape growers and winemakers. 

Innovation in the wine-making facilities not only prepares students for the wine industry but also diverse, life-long careers. “We are not just training people to become winemakers and grape growers,” says Sacks. 

Approximately one-half to two-thirds of Viticulture and Enology students directly enter the wine industry as winemakers or grape growers.  The remaining students will enter the workforce in a diverse range of agricultural sciences, with many students continuing on to veterinary or medical school, business school, or graduate studies in plant breeding or food science.    

 “How do we train students who aren’t just learning a technical skill, but instead are prepared to be scientists?” asks Sacks.  “We want students to think broadly about how to define and answer those questions.  To do that we need to give them the tools to experiment.”

Alex Koeberle '13 is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, NY