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Student Focus

Grad Student Uses Diverse Experience to Assist Growers

Article by Marin Cherry
Photos by Ksenia Verdiyan

Ph.D. student Ming-Yi Chou.  

A passion for wine may stem from unlikely places.   

Ming-Yi Chou is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Horticulture.  At Cornell, his work examines floor management impacts on grape composition and wine sensory properties through physiological and microbial pathways.  Yet, Chou’s path to Cornell has been far from easy, spanning several continents, and combining years of unique experience in the wine industry.

Chou grew up in the bustling metropolis of Taipei, Taiwan, known for progressive economic development and high tech industry.

“As a child I was curious about things I did not see very often in the city such as a fruit crop field,” Chou said.  

This curiosity led Chou to a degree in Horticulture from National Taiwan University, where he researched table grape rootstock.   After completing military service, Chou wanted to continue learning about the grape and wine industry.  So he pursued a Master of Science in Wine Business from the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon, France.  As a student, Chou learned that 71% of grapes are destined for wine and are among the highest valued fruit crops in the world, a fact that shifted his attention to wine.

His choice to study wine, Chou said, terrified his parents because they typically do not consume wine.

Chou’s passion for wine led him across continents, including work at a subtropical table grape vineyard, and holding a sommelier position at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.  According to Chou, this combination of work experience is what drove him to advance his studies at Cornell.

“The sommelier position confirmed my passion for wine, food, and interacting with people, but I also want to see what’s going on in the field,” Chou said. 

Chou examining grapes in the vineyard.  

Now at Cornell, Chou has plenty of opportunities to be in the field.  His project, supervised by Justine Vanden Heuvel, Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, combines both vine physiology and vineyard microbiology, requiring countless hours out in the vineyard whether on campus at the Agricultural Experiment Station or throughout New York State. 

Chou hopes his Ph.D. research will provide both environmentally and economically sustainable tools for vineyard managers and winemakers to achieve their viticultural or vinification goals.

The Finger Lakes region particularly attracts grape growers and wine makers who seek diverse and dynamic conditions.  Variables such as high vigor vines, harsh winters, and short growing seasons pose many challenges.  Yet Chou, like many others in this region, is excited by these conditions, also seeing opportunity to better serve the wine industry. 

Looking into the future, Chou hopes to work in the wine industry, in a position that gets him into the vineyard regularly and keeps him engaged in the winery.

To Chou, making wines isn’t just a mechanical task, but an outstanding performance.

 “Growing grapes and making wines is like infusing my passion and the best of my thoughts into something people would appreciate,” said Chou.  “It is like writing a book or singing a song but I choose to do my performance through wine.  So that every bottle made with my participation will have some sort of an image of me.”

Marin Cherry is an undergraduate program coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Food Science.