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Agritech grad student Jen Neubauer is fascinated by the science of wine

People who enjoy Finger Lakes wines, be it a veteran consumer or “newbie,” likely have put some thought into how it’s made or the work that goes into its flavor.

Jen Neubauer, a graduate student at Cornell AgriTech, said it’s not an easy question to answer.

“Wine is a complex, dynamic living art form that defies precise definition. There’s this subtle romantic allure that pervades wine that just seems to fascinate people,” she said. “You’ve probably heard people say the making of wine is just as much science as it is art. We’ve been making wine for thousands of years, and it’s part of most people’s lives to some extent, yet there’s still so much we don’t understand — which is pretty mind-blowing.”

With that statement, it’s pretty clear Neubauer is one of those fascinated by wine. However, her path to studying it today isn’t a straight one.

Jen Neubauer

After spending part of her childhood in the Monroe County town of Greece, Neubauer moved to Honeoye with her family and graduated from Honeoye Central School in 2005. She then went to Cornell University, earning a degree in Near Eastern Studies in 2009.

“I realized I didn’t want to work in that field … and eventually worked in retail,” she said. “I worked my way up to management but realized it wasn’t that challenging.”

With an interest in wineries from growing up in the Finger Lakes, Neubauer began working part time for Keuka Lake Vineyards near Hammondsport.

“I stayed home with my daughter during the week and worked at the winery on weekends, doing lab analysis,” she said. “I loved the work, and it really got me interested in returning to school.”

Neubauer took classes at Finger Lakes Community College, including some in the college’s viticulture program, and later through Cornell. She is on course to earn a master’s degree in food science (enology) late this year, and learned recently she has been accepted into the doctorate program.

Her advisor is Anna Katharine Mansfield, a professor of enology and associate director at AgriTech. Mansfield and others say graduate students are an important part of AgriTech’s mission.

“We have about 36 grad students at AgriTech, and they are doing a lot of the research, in addition to working with our technicians and faculty on experiential work,” Mansfield said. “The most important part of the graduate degree is going through the scientific process and designing projects, and research. This is something graduate students have been doing for years.”

Neubauer is working on a project — led by Mansfield — to increase the use of New York-sourced hardwood, especially white oak, to improve the flavor of wine and spirits. That includes using “wood adjuncts,” small pieces of wood or even sawdust to introduce flavors similar to barrel aging.

“Instead of putting the wine or spirits in a barrel, the wood is placed in containers with wine or spirits for a set amount of time, and they are filtered,” Neubauer said. “Wood adjunct products are used in commercial production … because they can introduce ‘aged’ character at a lower cost for certain styles of wine.”

There is a sustainability aspect to the project as well. Mansfield and Neubauer are working with the Climate & Applied Forest Research Institute, a team of forest, energy and climate experts based at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

“From an ecological standpoint … we can encourage landowners to manage and plant more oak trees, which is really an important keystone species and in decline,” Neubauer said. “The landowners can benefit by planting more trees, which helps the environment … and cutting and selling them.”

Mansfield said Neubauer, as well as other AgriTech grad students, bring a fresh perspective to their advisors. Neubauer lives in Clifton Springs with her husband, Dylan, and their 7-year-old daughter, Tara.

“Jen has a way of looking at things and points of view that I would never think of, which is what we want from our grad students. She is very interested in sustainability and is environmentally conscious,” Mansfield said. “She has a talent for looking at the way things have been done for years and saying ‘Hey, maybe we can look at this differently.’ She is very creative. The breadth of things she comes up with are amazing and she also has a young family. Earning a master’s degree and starting a Ph.D. with a young child at home is impressive.”

“From a broad perspective, research (being a graduate student) is amazing because I get to indulge in exercising creativity daily with a large amount of personal freedom while solving specific industry problems that help people. Really, what’s not to love about that?” Neubauer said. “Not to mention the people that work in wine including research, extension and industry are wonderful — the best I’ve ever worked with for sure. “

Neubauer is looking forward to further exploring her fascination of wine through doctorate work.

“For me, it’s a bit like working on unraveling and understanding the magic that’s behind wine flavor,” she said. “If you’ve ever sipped on some remarkable, complex, dynamic wine and tried to explain your experience drinking it, then you’ll understand a bit what it’s like trying to pin that dynamism down and corral it into a scientific definition or explanation.

“I enjoy trying to capture and understand that ‘magic’ that underlies wine — using sensory science to measure the people’s perception of flavor and then attempting to connect it to an underlying chemistry.”

This is the 10th article in a monthly series appearing first in the Finger Lakes Times on the faculty and staff — and now a graduate student — at Cornell AgriTech, and how their work impacts our way of life.

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