By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
Winemakers have been long been among the original experimenters; that is, those willing to employ trial and error methodologies and information gleaned from other colleagues to continually improve their vintages.
But much of that analysis has been done in virtual isolation.
What’s been missing, especially in the Western hemisphere, is a link to bring knowledge captured at the individual level into an accessible arena where it can be applied more broadly in order to make better wine.
A recently formed organization called the Research Oenovation Collective (ROC) has been established to address that gap.
Its mission is to “lead(s) the advancement of practical winemaking by providing a collaborative platform for applied research and innovation.”
Peter Salamone is ROC’s founder and CEO. He came into the wine business from biotech, so had an understanding about how basic research works and that wine is, essentially, a “technology driven industry.”
“Research is an important part of it,” Salamone points out. “Nobody had ownership of applied research. It was always the vision of the specific person delivering it. Economics and a consolidation of interests created hurdles.
“A few years ago, I had the idea of coordinating an applied research platform to benefit the entire wine industry throughout North America. We’re now eight months old. The reception has been extremely positive; better than I would have hoped for.”
ROC is set up as a non-profit, mutual benefit corporation, with governing by-laws administered through a board of directors. It has a robust team of technical advisors and is funded by its members, as well as through industry sponsorships.
Its purpose, according to the ROC website, is to provide winemakers with a “needed link between Research & Discovery and Application & Development.” It is open to any individual or business engaged in the manufacture of wine, wine products, operations or processing and to entities that conduct wine research and development.
The way it serves, according to Salamone, is that people and companies bring together information culled through their original work onto a mutually shared platform to benefit the industry as a whole.
“As individual companies, most wineries lack resources,” Salamone notes. “We need to cooperate as an industry to make this function.”
Domingo Rodriguez, who works with Scott Laboratories in Petaluma, CA, is ROC’s board secretary. He is energized by the creation of a platform that makes truly applied research available industry wide, which, he observes, is not the role of either the universities or individual wineries.
“ROC doesn’t compete with academia, it’s an extension,” Rodriguez states. “Empirical research can be rolled out (on ROC platform) and wineries can use it. Truly applied research can create guidelines that come from the market itself, not from the vendor.”
Larry Brooks, a member of the ROC Technical Advisory Committee, has been a winemaker through at least 40 different vintages, beginning with Acacia Winery in the Napa Valley in 1979. In 2000 he began a winery consultation career, which still flourishes today, and holds positions as a lecturer in Sensory Evaluation at both Cal Poly SLO and CSU Fresno.
Brooks believes the advantage of applied research lies in the fact that it can be tested across multiple wineries – or regions – to determine whether the results are scientifically valid.
“Wineries aren’t universities. They’re focused on production,” Brooks emphasizes.
“The ROC coordinates with wineries to repeat the same experiment. You’ll have 12 other wineries doing the same thing, which gives you enough data to know whether a particular product or set of procedures succeeds or fails.”
“The value of applied research is that the experiments and testing are done at full scales,” Brooks adds. “Wines react very differently at full scale versus a micro scale.”
When asked for an example on a project through ROC that he has worked on, Salamone relayed that last year, he was asked about doing a trial in California’s Central Coast region on a nutritional supplement formulated to enhance the aromatics in white wine, specifically, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Salamone worked with industry partners, including Brooks, to develop and conduct the trial and those wines are now being sent to ETS laboratories for quantitative aromatic analysis to supplement a recently completed winemaker sensory evaluation.
Eventually, the trial data and results will be shared through a comprehensive communications strategy that involves the ROC website, webinars, industry publications and public seminars, which are accessible to ROC members and industry partners, as well as to the general public.
“It’s exciting to think about being part of moving the information base of this industry forward,” Salamone says. “We want to build a stronger platform for the wine industry, to put tools in (winemaker’s) hands to enable them to make better wines.”
Salamone emphasizes that ROC works at a regional level to develop and host meetings where winemakers and other professionals can get together to share information most relevant to where their businesses are actually located.
Currently, ROC is in the process of collaborations with organizations in California’s Central Coast, Napa, Sonoma, Walla Walla Washington, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and in Virginia.
Salamone explains that each region can set up their partnership with ROC specific to their own localized, wine-community interests and needs. The response to such a decentralized approach has been positive and Salamone confirms that, “we’ll be looking at other regions in the future, beginning next year.”
For his part, Rodriguez reports that he hears nothing but unbridled enthusiasm about ROC and its potential from winery professionals and sponsors alike.
“People that I’ve received feedback from are excited about controlled trials across multiple regions that they would have access to,” Rodriguez declares. “Sponsorship is giving a voice to a winery or a business, saying ‘I support looking at this protocol, or platform or product and looking at the best way to apply it.’ They’re all excited about it. It’s for the common good of the entire wine industry.”