The Cal Poly wine and viticulture lab is nestled in a hallway next to Campus Market, with a light brown door, and a clinical and professional interior. It is run by Dr. Federico Casassa who— alongside students— does research on wine taste and fermentation.
The lab is new and is the first lab the wine and viticulture program has had, according to Casassa. Even though the lab is only six months old, Casassa and students have already done award-winning research. Student research has ranged from the effect microwaving stems has on wines, to cluster thinning, the latter of which won the best student flash talk at a convention over summer.
With small grants, department funds and donations, Casassa has supplied the lab with equipment.
Some students get in, he explained, but not all. He has all interested students send him an email describing what research they want to do. If they have a solid abstract or idea for an experiment, he works with them. If they have no idea, they can come back later. How many students get in?
This bar he sets reflects his personal philosophy, he said sitting in his chair in the lab at the base of the agriculture building between a stack of tests and a lab table where three of his students were carefully pipetting samples of centrifuged wine.
Because Casassa works for the wine industry, he believes he should be proactive in developing it.
“I always try to make super sure my research has a direct practical implementation or component,” Casassa said.
That’s why his paper last year won the best paper award from the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture — the most prominent journal in the business — which was “deemed outstanding in its content and a substantial contribution to the field.” The article focused on how the size of the berry affects the taste of the finished wine product.
The paper was co-authored with Richard Larsen and James Harbertson of Washington State University, where Casassa received his Ph.D. in food science, wine chemistry and sensory analysis. As he explained it, the wine and viticulture industry is so small and so competitive, a person can’t survive it without teaming up
While the industry is small, the wine and viticulture community at Cal Poly is growing. It became its own department in 2013, and currently, according to Casassa, is the largest undergraduate wine and viticulture department in the country with around 250 students, and six professors.
Wine and viticulture senior Patricia Williams has been in the department since she was a freshman, and has worked with Casassa since June as a paid laboratory assistant. She has been measuring the phenolics, which can be associated with level of bitterness of different wines, for the past four months. She grew up in Napa Valley, where her Sicilian-immigrant grandfather planted and operated his own vineyard.
“That’s the dream,” Williams said, “to be a winemaker, and to take over from my grandpa.”
Daniel Postiglione, a wine and viticulture graduate student, is continuing on a branch of Casassa’s paper from last year by analyzing the effect berry size has on finished wine.
“Wine is a big part of our culture and it’s always been a part of my life, and I love it,” Postiglione said.
A previous version of this story misspelled Professor Federico Casassa’s name as Professor Frederico Casassa.