February 12, 2013

Prof. Gavin Sacks Studies Grapes and Improves Wines

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“I had no intention when I came to graduate school to end up as a wine chemist,” said Prof. Gavin Sacks M.S. ’01 Ph.D. ’05, viticulture and enology. Sacks has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and was planning to leave Ithaca for a postdoctoral position when he got married and his wife found a job at Cornell.

“I decided to take some time off and work for a local winery,” Sacks said.

As he met more winemakers, Sacks discovered something: every one of them was keeping up on the latest scientific literature surrounding wines and grapes, and every one of them had some personal experiments for improving the quality of their wine.

Sacks’ interest in the chemistry behind wine continued to grow until a faculty position became available in Cornell’s viticulture and enology department.

One of Sacks’ research projects looks at why some perfectly good bottles of wine will smell like rotten eggs a few months after being bottled. To do this, he studies the chemical makeup of wine aromas and how they change in response to bottling. Sacks’ goal is to find a solution that will allow winemakers to predict when their wines might start to smell like sulfur and to prevent it from happening.

Sacks is also working at Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva to create and cultivate new breeds of wine grapes that are better-tasting, more likely to survive tough winters and less susceptible to parasites and diseases. He and other Cornell scientists are looking at the genomes of various grape varieties in order to determine what genes cause flavor, aroma, or growth patterns and discover how to breed more successful varieties of wine grapes.

Sacks said his favorite aspect of the job are the differences between analytical, laboratory chemistry and wine chemistry. In analytical chemistry, making a mistake means staying in the lab for extra hours to redo the experiment. With grapes and winemaking, “it could be another year before you get to redo that,” Sacks said.

“It’s so frustrating, but it also makes for a lot more enjoyable challenges,” Sacks said. Wine chemists have to be extremely careful with the design and implementation of their experiments in order to avoid wasting time and money, he said.

Wine chemistry often involves direct communication between industry and academia, another deviation from pure chemistry. Research being done by a wine scientist can be implemented by winemakers around the country in a matter of days, which, according to Sacks, is both rewarding and intimidating.

100,000 wines are approved for sale in the U.S. every year, and Sacks said that picking a favorite wine is like choosing one’s favorite child.

“The fun of wine is trying as many as possible. That’s what makes wine entertaining: there is no such thing as the best,” Sacks said.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter