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Student Focus

The Vanden Heuvel Lab’s Visiting Student from Across the Pond: Sam Kozlowski

Interview by Marin Cherry

Cornell University has always drawn some of the best and the brightest to the shores of Cayuga Lake, and this summer is no different!  Visiting graduate student Sam Kozlowski is working in Justine Vanden Heuvel’s lab on a project related to under-vine cover crops and vine root systems. Originally from Maryland, Sam moved to England as a teenager, and more recently has lived all around the world.  His propensity for science and love of airplanes led him to complete his first master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering in 2015.  Bitten by the wine bug, he went on to do harvests in California, New Zealand, and Germany, as well as worked in wine sales with Harrods in London. Sam is currently working on his second master’s degree as student in the Vinifera Euromaster program in Viticulture, Enology, and Business. The program has afforded him the opportunity to study at Montpellier SupAgro in France, Geisenheim University in Germany, and now at Cornell.

Between busy days in the vineyard, Sam was kind enough to answer some questions from us about his interests, current work, and about how a former aerospace engineer wound up involved in grapes and wine.

How did you become interested in viticulture and enology? Was there a specific moment when you decided that this was the career path for you?
It was actually a very gradual move towards wine for me, with a few stand-out moments. A neighbor of mine planted a vineyard to make sparkling wine, and I would often go along to help out with harvest and vineyard work. I remember finding it fascinating; tasting the grapes alongside the wine, wondering how these simple grape flavors could transform into the complex flavors in the glass. Another catalyst was living with friends from around Europe, with whom I travelled often, and experienced how wine and food were an integral part of continental European culture.

At the end of my five years as an engineering student, I contemplated the possibility of working in wineries around the world for harvest. My ultimate decision to do so was compelled by the fact that wine regions tend to be in some of the most beautiful corners of the world! At some point during my first harvest, probably while sleep deprived, stained and sticky with grape skins, I realized I wanted to be involved in winemaking for the rest of my life.

Can you describe your current research project? How do you think your work will impact the wine and grape industry?
My current research project is a continuation of excellent previous work conducted by the Vanden Heuvel lab, which has shown that under-vine cover crops can moderate vigor, benefit soil microbial health and soil structure, and reduce runoff and leachate – often without negative impacts on fruit composition or yield. My project specifically focuses on some of the less apparent factors affected by cover crops, including partitioning of carbohydrates and nutrients, mychorrizal colonization of roots, and distribution of root growth. The hope is that my research will further characterize the effects of under-vine cover crops and their benefits, and help to convince growers to adopt this under-vine management strategy when suitable.

Does your background in Aerospace Engineering useful at all in your current work? They seem so separate!
For me, having an engineering degree certainly gives me a different outlook on wine production. The most valuable thing I gained from my previous studies is a systems-based outlook; how everything behaves like a system, how components in a system are connected and influence each other, and with understanding and critical thinking, a system can be optimized and improved. I think that’s also what pushed me towards viticulture: how actions based on an understanding of the complexities in the vineyard can ameliorate many of the problems, or reduce inputs in the cellar, and ultimately elevate the quality of wine.

Any experiences you’re looking forward to in the near future?
Unfortunately until now, I haven’t been part of an entire growing season anywhere. That is one of the reasons why I jumped at the opportunity to come here from February to November: I get the opportunity to help manage a vineyard block throughout the season, while also doing research. It’s valuable and rewarding to witness all of the phenological stages and to understand the unique challenges of an unfamiliar region.

Plans after graduation?
Ultimately, I see myself returning to England to work in viticulture or wine production. I know what you might be thinking…England has vineyards? We do indeed! Occasionally, the sun pokes through the clouds, and Pinot noir and Chardonnay ripen perfectly for the production of outstanding sparkling wines. In this case, climate change has been our friend, and although we face some uncertain economic times ahead, a lot of people are experimenting and making exciting new wines in England. Being part of an emerging wine region really excites me, and I would love to bring back home what I have learned in my studies and experiences abroad.