Good Science = Great Wine

Roni Stefanick, a senior Biology major, recently completed a semester-long internship at Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pennsylvania.

Next time you enjoy a glass of wine, consider this: Behind every great bottle of vino is a scientist.

Food and beverage production is a science and also a potential career path for students like Roni Stefanick, a senior Biology major, who recently completed a semester-long internship at Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pennsylvania.

She learned about the opportunity from Dr. Mike Campbell, professor of biology and director of Penn State’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center (LERGREC), a 40-acre research facility in North East.

“Dr. Campbell knew I had an interest in food science, and he saw the Mazza lab internship as a great opportunity for me to get hands-on experience in the industry,” said Stefanick who was responsible for running experiments on wine and juice to be sure it fit within the proper parameters for pH, sulfur content, and sugar levels.

Stefanick said her internship at Mazza drove home the lessons she learned in the chemistry labs at Behrend.

“When I was doing labs at school, I was trying to earn a good grade and I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that the skills I was learning could be applied in the real world,” she said. “I had no idea that all the titrations (a quantitative chemical analysis) I did in my chemistry labs would be so useful later. During my internship, I titrated nearly every day, testing for the amount of free sulfur in each tank of wine or determining the titratable acidity of grapes/wines.”

From vineyard to vino

Grapes are big business in the Erie Concord grape belt, which stretches from Erie County, Pennsylvania, to Chautauqua County, New York, and scientists play an important role in the industry, from the vineyard to the lab. Penn State Behrend faculty members and students along with area farmers work together at LERGREC to improve crops, thwart pests, and explore new varieties and growing techniques. The center has been operating for more than sixty-five years.

Sometimes, as in the case of Stefanick’s internship, several goals can be met all at once.

Learning on the job

“My supervisor, Mario Mazza, helped me shape a research project from past data the winery had collected related to an analysis test known as Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (YAN),” Stefanick said. “I was trying to find out if there was a correlation between fermentation time and YAN, which is the nitrogen available for the yeast to begin fermentation.”

“It’s tricky to figure out,” she said, “because there are a lot of factors, such as wine variety and nutrient addition, that play a role in how fermentation proceeds.”

Stefanick also learned how to properly taste wine.

“It’s much more than swirling it around in the glass and sipping it,” she said. “It involves picking up on aromas that may be slightly off or sensing when the wine has just the right amount of sugar added. Tasting wine involves all of your senses.”