Wine chemistry research serves as resource for Maryland vintners

McDaniel’s wine chemistry student researchers and mentor Steve Robertson check the grapes at alumna and trustee Carolyn and Bob Scott’s Bellendene Vineyards near Westminster, Md.
September 11, 2012

As McDaniel’s wine chemistry group grows in student researchers and variety of topics, their mentor sees his plan for the group to be a resource to Maryland’s winery community coming to fruition. In fact, a recent grant from the Maryland Wineries Association will put students in the lab analyzing wines deemed flawed at the Governor’s Cup wine competition this summer.

“It’s a perfect combination: our students have the opportunity to be part of fundamental research in wine chemistry as we serve as a resource to what is a growing industry in our area,” says McDaniel lab instructor and adjunct lecturer Steve Robertson, who launched the wine chemistry research three summers ago and now mentors five student researchers exploring the finer points of producing a superior vintage.

The genetics of wine yeasts captured Carolina Marques dos Santos Vieira’s research attention. A senior Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major, she continued her research comparing nucleotide and protein sequences of enzymes in two different yeasts even when home in Portugal this summer. Wine is part of her family’s heritage – her grandfather at one time produced about 2,000 liters or 528 gallons a year. And, she points out, there’s a cork tree just off the family’s backyard in Ourém, Portugal.

Vieira hopes to work under the grant from the wineries association during this year.

“It means I get to go back into the lab,” she says, explaining the excitement that is so obvious in the grin that lights up her face.

She won’t be alone in the lab. For junior Rachel Utterback, wine chemistry research offered a way for her to merge her two majors, Biochemistry and French.

“Wine is a big part of French culture,” says the junior from Gaithersburg, Md., who looked at some of the different compounds in the wine that come from yeast during fermentation. “By researching wine I am able to relate my majors into one area.”

The main reason Matt Peterson is pursuing his education far from his Littleton, Colo., home is the fact that undergraduates conduct research at McDaniel, frequently in collaboration with faculty. And the sophomore Biochemistry major wasted no time finding his way to the lab and his own project in wine chemistry – during the summer after his first year at McDaniel, he studied levels of compounds such as methanol, tartaric acid and acetic acid or vinegar, all of which can result in off-flavor wine.

Two students looked at polyphenols in wine. These compounds are antioxidants and are currently being studied for their potential role in preventing certain degenerative diseases such as cancers and cardiovascular disease.

McDaniel senior Patrick Keefe is investigating the effect of Kosher wine pasteurization on concentrations of polyphenols, while Zach Watkins, a junior Biochemistry major from Cumberland, Md., analyzed polyphenol composition of red and white wines in collaboration with Chemistry professor Rick Smith.