Five Questions for Demi Perry
Demi Perry works on Cornell’s main campus in Ithaca as both a technician and PhD student in Anna Katharine Mansfield’s program. She attended Cornell as an undergraduate in Chemistry (‘13), and received her MS degree at Penn State, where she studied how people perceive methyl anthranilate and 2-aminoacetophenone. Bitten by the wine bug, she went straight from Happy Valley (Home of Penn State) to Cayuga Lake, where she worked as a cellar assistant at a small winery, gaining experience in the vineyard and cellar. When the opportunity arose to return to Cornell after the 2016 vintage, Demi leapt at the chance and has been using her diverse expertise in chemistry, sensory science, and enology to help solve the challenges facing today’s grape growers and wine producers.
What inspired you to work with wine?
I think I am a little unusual in that, unlike many winemakers and people in the industry, I don’t think I had one defining moment where I suddenly decided I need to work with wine. Reflecting on my relationship with wine is a bit like reflecting on a close friendship-it is difficult to articulate how it began or when I knew it would last, but I just had a gut feeling and decided to follow it. I will say that I think living in the Finger Lakes for four years as an undergraduate was certainly influential; tasting and touring around a renowned wine region whet my palate, so to speak, but also made me realize how little I actually knew about wine. Wine is something that is personal and yet a commodity so fundamentally rooted in science that it demands knowledge across many fields, serving as a natural bridge between people with diverse specialties.
What are the major challenges in your field?
I think, to some extent, the field of enology and viticulture is itself inherently challenging. If we start from the grape growing side, we face the ever-changing demands and unpredictability of Mother Nature. This day-to-day, month-to-month, vintage variability, especially in the Finger Lakes, creates a challenging environment in which to grow and ripen healthy (disease-free) grapes. When you couple this with the rising demand for regional wines, especially those produced using “sustainable” practices, you leave winemakers with the difficult balancing act of increasing their production while maintaining quality, but also trying to offer “value” wines. I think further obstacles then arise as winemakers and grape growers want a quick “one size fits all” approach to increase their efficiency or overcome a problem they are facing that particular vintage, but research takes time and I think communicating that can sometimes be challenging.
What projects are you pursuing for your PhD?
The “project path” a student blazes to acquire their PhD can be full of many twists and turns. That said, I was fortunate enough to be approached with a project that utilizes my chemistry background and builds on my winemaking experience. I am currently working on a project that utilizes a two-step processing approach to selectively remove native odorants from Vitis labruscana juice without significantly affecting the chemistry of the juice and kinetics of subsequent fermentations. In other words, the juice I start with smells grapey and foxy but after processing, these overwhelming odorants have been removed, resulting in a juice that can be fermented into a relatively neutral wine. In recent years, as technology has advanced and membrane systems have become more available and affordable, similar membrane-resin processing principles have been applied to remediate problems facing the industry, like volatile acidity and Brettanomyces.
How will your research benefit the wine industry?
The motivation for my research has grown from both the needs of grape growers and the needs of wine producers. Growers of native grapes like Concord and Niagara have seen a drop in demand for their product and, as a result, been left with a surplus of grapes and less revenue. At the same time, with challenging growing conditions here in the Finger Lakes, winemakers have been searching for alternative grape suppliers and juice to get them through the tougher vintages that result in lower yields. This research, therefore, could provide winemakers with an inexpensive alternative to hybrids and other grapes they currently source, as well as provide grape growers with a market to which they can sell their grapes.
What is your favorite wine and food pairing?
All of them? As a person that loves to experiment in the kitchen almost as much as I love to unravel the flavors in a bottle of wine, I find that I don’t really have a favorite or a “go-to” dish since I am always creating new pairings. As a general rule of thumb, however, I find that an elaborately crafted meal deserves an equally impressive wine to complement the flavors and enhance the dining experience. What does this translate to? A Syrah, GSM blend from the Côtes du Rhône, or Barolo paired with a perfectly seared medium-rare steak. A fruity Rioja or off-dry Riesling paired with an assortment of cheeses and cured meats. Or perhaps, an elegant Pinot Noir paired with a slice of chocolate cake layered with light and fluffy dark chocolate mousse. And don’t even get me started on sparkling wines and ice wine pairings…