Hotline and wine lab -- with state-of-the-art equipment -- relaunch after 25 years

Marauding bacteria and wayward chemical reactions can drive fermentation awry, but for New York state wineries, help is just a phone call away. After more than 25 years of service, the New York State Wine Analytical Lab (NYSWAL) at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., is celebrating its relaunch with new equipment and enhanced capabilities.

"People come to us for two reasons: quality assurance and troubleshooting," said Ben Gavitt, the research and extension support specialist for the lab since its inception in 1989. "As the industry has matured, many wineries now have the equipment to perform basic measurements in-house. We've expanded our capability to offer more advanced analytical methods as well as analysis for distilleries."

A typical job begins with an urgent phone call from a winemaker who has realized something is wrong: Fermentation has stopped prematurely, a wine is unexpectedly cloudy or it smells "off."

The first diagnostic uses one of the lab's most sensitive instruments: Gavitt's nose. With more than 30 years of experience in winemaking and wine analysis, Gavitt is an expert in detecting flawed wines.

Chemical and microbial analyses are used to confirm the problem, and for most clients, the news is good.

"Nine times out of 10, the wine can be remediated, and the product saved," said Gavitt. "If not, we can give them guidance on how to prevent it in the future."

For complex problems, clients also have access to expertise in Cornell's Department of Food Science, which includes specialists in juice processing, microbiology, and aroma and flavor chemistry.

Through a new collaboration with the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab in Bradfield Hall, the NYSWAL now offers rapid analysis of trace elements like copper and iron that can affect wine stability. They have also added the capacity to measure compounds that contain the essential yeast nutrient nitrogen, which can be too low in grape juice to support healthy fermentation. And their new gas chromatography flame ionization detector can accurately measure the amount of alcohol in the state's sweeter beverages, including late harvest dessert wines and fruit wines.

For the state's new artisan distilleries, the NYSWAL provides sensory evaluation and analysis of ethanol -- the "good" alcohol -- and methanol, a federally regulated fermentation byproduct that can accumulate during distillation.

The NYSWAL continues to offer standard analyses for juice and wine, including pH, acidity, alcohol, acids, microbial analysis of faulty wines, tests of wine stability, small scale trials of winemaking additives and sensory appraisal.

"The chemical and microbial analysis is really only part of what the lab offers," said Anna Katharine Mansfield, assistant professor of enology and faculty adviser to the NYSWAL. "Increasingly, people turn to us for help troubleshooting a problem. We don't just send them the numbers -- we offer suggestions to alleviate the problem and prevent recurrence."

New York wineries, home winemakers and distilleries receive discounted prices with support from the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

"Our strategic goal is to have the New York grape and wine industry recognized as a world leader in quality, productivity and social responsibility," said Jim Trezise, the foundation's president. "Cornell has been a vital partner in pursuing that goal, and the wine lab is a great example of why the quality of New York wines has increased so much."

The lab, located in the Food Research Laboratory on the Geneva campus, is an essential part of Cornell's enology extension program. Trends in requested tests and test results can alert Mansfield of emerging issues that can be addressed at New York wine industry-related workshops.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.

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