David Hugel, a graduate student in the lab of Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate director of Cornell AgriTech and associate professor of food science, has been investigating how outdoor odors affect grapes in the vineyard. Aroma is a key factor in enjoying a glass of wine, and Hugel hopes his research will help growers understand how to protect grapes from unwanted aromas.
Explain your research in a few sentences in layman’s terms. What crops do you research? What questions are you trying to answer?
Research has recently confirmed that wildfire smoke and eucalyptus trees can impart unpleasant odors to grapes and wine through airborne transmission. Could there be other odors floating around that may also be of concern?
In collaboration with the lab of professor of food science Gavin Sacks in Ithaca, we are investigating the smells of New York state and seeing what may be lurking in the air that could be a danger to winemakers. Of particular interest is cannabis due to its skunky aroma and growing market.
What’s one fascinating thing that most people wouldn’t know about the crop you research and/or the tools you use?
In 1985, dozens of Austrian wine producers were arrested for intentionally spiking their wine with diethylene glycol (DEG), a toxic solvent and occasional component of antifreeze. DEG was added in an attempt to increase the body and sweetness of the wine. This led to the collapse of the Austrian wine industry, but also much stricter wine laws that would eventually lead to an Austrian wine renaissance decades later.
If you happen to ingest DEG, you can actually cure yourself by drinking wine; one of the two recommended treatments for DEG poisoning is maintaining a blood alcohol content of roughly 0.10-0.15% for several hours until the DEG is no longer found in the bloodstream.
What challenges affecting this crop does your research address? What approaches are you using?
There is currently no evidence that cannabis can contaminate grapes. As a proof of concept, we have over 40 hemp plants right in the center of an AgriTech research vineyard right now. The blooming buds are just about touching the grapes. This season’s harvest and subsequent wine should give us a pretty good indication whether contamination is possible after performing sensory and chemical analysis.
So far, we haven’t found any evidence of other forms of airborne transmission, which is the ideal outcome for New York grape growers!
What do you ultimately hope the outcomes of your research will be?
It’s in the best interest of the wine industry that we find nothing, but it would be far more interesting if airborne transmission were possible. Then you could intentionally make wine smell like cannabis (or possibly other aromas) without using any additives.
What have you done to support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at AgriTech and what inspires you about that?
Last year I had the opportunity to participate in the first ever AgriTech diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) ambassador cohort, which was led in part by my advisor, Anna Katharine Mansfield. Throughout the program, I learned and engaged with DEI concepts through books, workshops and collaborative meetings with the other members of the cohort. At the end of the year, we took what we learned and created DEI projects pertaining to challenges that the AgriTech community faces. It was amazing to see the passion that everyone brought to ensure that Cornell is an inclusive and welcoming place.
What do you love most about being a student on the Geneva campus?
The best part to me is all the delicious produce that’s given away after experiments are finished. I recently feasted on an AgriTech zucchini the size of my arm. The flavor was also sensational; it had the most “zucchini-ness” of any zucchini I’ve ever tasted.
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