WSU grape smoke exposure researcher Tom Collins elevated to associate professor

Professional head shot of Tom Collins
Tom Collins (Photo: CAHNRS Communications)

RICHLAND, Wash. — Washington State University’s Department of Viticulture and Enology (V&E) has promoted wine scientist Tom Collins from assistant professor to associate professor.

“It felt great to receive the news,” said Collins, who was recently named the inaugural Jackson Family Wines Endowed Professor. “I knew that I, my team, and our collaborators worked hard to finish everything on our projects. But there’s always a nagging sense of doubt that maybe it wasn’t quite enough. It’s nice when it turns out that you did what it takes.”

Well known in the wine science community for his extensive research on how smoke exposure affects grapes, Collins has made substantial contributions to the V&E department since joining WSU in 2015.

“Tom is a driving force in Washington’s grape and wine industry,” said V&E Department Chair Jean Dodson Peterson. “His groundbreaking research on smoke exposure and dedication to teaching have left an indelible mark. Tom’s promotion is a well-deserved recognition of his significant contributions to viticulture and enology.”

The promotion and tenure process is rigorous and spans several months. To be considered, faculty must submit a package demonstrating the value of their work as researchers, teachers, and (if applicable) Extension specialists, while also illustrating their service to the community. Both external and internal reviewers assess the package before it finally makes its way to the dean.

For Collins, the promotion represents a key steppingstone that allows him to build upon previous accomplishments.

“In some ways, it feels like I’ve completed a great task,” said Collins, who is based at WSU’s Tri-Cities campus. “But this is just the beginning. There’s no shortage of collaboration opportunities and projects to work on.”

One such project involves studying the clay-based barrier sprays used to protect grapes from smoke and determining the feasibility of commercial implementation.

Collins’ team recently showed that the sprays can reduce the amount of smoke uptake in grapevines. Their data also indicated that if the sprays aren’t washed off in a timely manner post-exposure, the clay releases the compounds back into the fruit, potentially worsening the problem. Now Collins’ lab is determining how far in advance of a smoke exposure the sprays can be effectively applied and how quickly they should be removed.

“We saw higher concentrations of smoke compounds in the fruit that had clay on it than in the fruit that didn’t,” Collins said. “The data suggests that if you have a smoke exposure, you’d have to go in and remove the barrier spray, then reapply it if there’s still a risk for more smoke.”

Collins and team are also studying the oak extraction process for tank staves — small pieces of oak placed in tanks of fermenting wine as an alternative to aging the wine in oak barrels. Because wood barrels are expensive and require extensive labor and materials, many in the industry are turning to tank staves as a more sustainable option for creating certain aromas and flavor profiles in wines.

“This work is aimed at helping winemakers understand how long it will take to extract a piece of wood, based on its size and shape and the extent to which it has been toasted,” Collins said. “It’s an interesting study that I think will help winemakers better use these tools, now that they’re more widely available.”

Promotion achieved, Collins is looking forward to new research opportunities and continued mentorship of students who represent the future of the wine industry.

“The work continues,” he said. “There are still high expectations for publications and continuing to excel in teaching. Now we move on to bigger and better things and continue building upon the program that’s already been established.”

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