A chemist employs his analytical skills in the wine industry
To make wine, you start with grape juice, let the fermentation process begin and a few steps (and few months) later, you may have yourself a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you balanced all the flavors just right.
Conceptually, it’s very simple, but in reality, winemaking is an art that some people spend their lifetime perfecting.
Yet when you break it all down, winemaking is chemistry. And sure enough, there are chemists who work at wineries—like Kawaljit Tandon, a research chemist at Constellation Wines U.S., the largest premium wine company in the world.
Kawal’s job isn’t exactly “non-traditional” since it’s essentially an R&D job in a beverage industry. But I thought he’d still be a good fit for this blog since becoming an enologist and working with winemakers isn’t something that comes to mind right away when you’re thinking about what you can do with a chemistry degree.
Kawal received his Bachelors degree in Agriculture Sciences from Bangalore, India, before coming to the U.S. and earning a Masters and Ph.D. in food science from The University of Georgia. In grad school, he studied the flavor chemistry of fresh tomatoes using various sensory techniques and analytical instrumentation.
As a post-doc in food chemistry at Cornell University, Kawal found out about the job at Constellation Wines U.S. and applied. Although he didn’t study wine prior to landing the job, his training in basic plant physiology, food chemistry and analytical instrumentation prepared him well for the position.
“I had too much of the upstate NY snow and could not resist sunny California!” Kawal said. “It has been a learning curve though since this job was my first exposure to grape and wine flavor chemistry.”
Kawal researches the aroma and flavor of grapes and wines, as well as cork and other closures, oak barrels and adjuncts, and packaging materials. When an aroma or flavor issue arises with a wine product, he investigates it to determine the source of the stink, which could come from cork (haloanisoles), or from the yeast (sulfur compounds) or from the grape itself (methoxypyrazines). He is also involved in tracking aroma compounds in grapes and following that through winemaking and storage.
“Wine is a very dynamic medium and there is chemistry happening all the way from the vineyard to fermentation to barrel ageing to bottling and post-bottling storage,” Kawal said.
Each step along the way requires analytical support, and Kawal and his chemistry colleagues are there to make sure it all happens so that the final product is of the highest quality.
Kawal uses several pieces of advanced instrumentation on a regular basis, including a GC-MS, GC-MS/MS and GC-O as well as various extraction techniques such as SPE, SPME and SAFE.
I found the GC-O to be particularly interesting. It stands for Gas Chromatography-Olfactometry. The sample that comes out of the GC gets split— one part goes to a detector like an FID or MS to generate a chromatogram and the other part goes to an olfactometer where the analyst is sniffing the sample and recording what it smells like and how intense the smell is.
“Combining the data from the detector and olfactometer can give insight into the intensity and potency of compounds and whether they play a significant part in the overall aroma profile of the sample,” Kawal said.
“I have gained an appreciation for all that which goes into winemaking,” he said.
On a day-to-day basis, Kawal is running analyses, doing literature searches, talking with winemakers and collaborators on projects, and performing instrument maintenance.
And just when you thought you were never supposed to taste your experiments, Kawal added: “and also I do some wine tasting to get a first-hand idea of what I am actually analyzing.”
“The best part of my job is working with a great group of people here in R&D and the Constellation winemakers to gain a better understanding of the aroma and flavor chemistry of grapes and wines,” Kawal said. “Then we use that knowledge to improve and produce a superior product.”
Kawal said he also enjoys the fact that his job allows him to keep regular hours so that he can spend time with his family (although he said grape crush time can be a different story).
To chemists out there who are interested in building their career at a wine company, Kawal recommends having a strong analytical chemistry background (an advanced degree in food science, analytical or natural products chemistry) and knowledge of the products that you hope to work with.
But it would be good to also have a Plan B, since there exist only a handful of larger wine companies in the U.S. that have a fully functioning R&D department.
“A Ph.D. flavor chemist in the wine industry in the U.S. is a rare commodity,” Kawal said. “There are, however, very active academic research programs in the U.S. in this field, like at Cornell, U.C. Davis, Oregon State, Fresno State, Virginia Tech and others.”
Also, many of the major beverage producers (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) have active R&D departments.
Alternatively, if you’re interested in world travel, there are research institutes and universities in major wine producing countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Germany, Chile, South Africa, Italy, and Canada.
Learn more about Constellation Wines U.S. online.
Learn more about the chemistry of winemaking:
An article (pdf) about chemistry in winemaking
A book from the Royal Society of Chemistry: The Chemistry and Biology of Winemaking