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Henick-Kling Wins Award, Future Grape

Posted by | October 30, 2008

Henick-Kling Wins Outstanding Achievement Award

Thomas Henick-Kling checking the progress of fermentation in this batch of experimental wine at Geneva. Henick-Kling is the former head of the enology program at Cornell Univeristy. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

Thomas Henick-Kling checking the progress of fermentation in this batch of experimental wine at Geneva. Henick-Kling is the former head of the enology program at Cornell Univeristy. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

The American Society for Enology and Viticulture-Eastern Section presented Thomas Henick-Kling with its Outstanding Achievement Award at the 33rd annual conference this year. Henick-Kling is the new director of Washington State University’s program in viticulture and enology.

Henick-Kling was recognized for his years of service as head of Cornell University’s enology program at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., and his contributions to the wine industry in New York, the nation and the world. Currently the director of the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, Henick-Kling will assume his new position at WSU in March 2009.

Throughout his 20 years as professor of enology at Cornell University, Henick-Kling has been a major force in the betterment of wines through research, teaching and extension. He campaigned for and helped build the Vinification and Brewing Technology Laboratory and the new Cornell Enology undergraduate degree program, and his technical guidance has been a major factor in the advancement of the New York wine industry.

For more information on WSU’s new director of viticulture and enology, please visit:
http://tinyurl.com/5qu3uv.

Future Grape

Amit Dhingra, a genomicist working to improve Washington fruit crops, checks development of a Pixie grape plant in his lab.
Amit Dhingra, a genomicist working to improve Washington fruit crops, checks development of a Pixie grape plant in his lab.

How many merlots can you make? At some point, speculates Amit Dhingra, consumers are going to want something different.

Dhingra is a horticultural genomicist at Washington State University. His research focuses on sequencing genomes and then taking that information to produce better fruit. He recently told Voice of the Vine that “as tastes change, I think there will be more wines filling specific niches. People always want something new.”

Much has been made of the sequencing of genomes, especially the human genome a few years ago. But, by itself, a genetic sequence tells us very little; it’s just a big haystack of information. Much more fine-grained questions must be answered in order for genetic sequence information to become useful knowledge. With humans, we’d like to know, for instance, which genes, when activated, makes us susceptible to Alzheimer’s or certain kinds of cancer. With crop plants, such as wine grapes, we’d like to know which genes produce flavor and odor compounds.

That’s what Dhingra and his genomics colleagues do: they take a haystack of information (the sequenced genome) and turn it into useful knowledge. In order to turn raw information into useful knowledge, though, Dhingra must understand the needs of growers and the desires of consumers. “We want to improve the food we eat and the wine we drink” Dhingra said. “There’s no other reason to do this kind of research.”

“We’ve got the genome for pinot noir,” Dhingra said, but the big questions remain: which genes in grapes are responsible for flavor, odor and health-benefitting qualities?

To help answer these questions, Dhingra is cultivating Pixie grapevines in his lab. Most grape plants flower for the first time in their third year. Pixie flowers in three months. Pixie is also tiny: a mature plant is only about 18 inches tall, making it perfect for accelerated research on an always-tight scientific budget.

As a new generation of wine drinkers learns to swirl, sniff and sip, grape growers, winemakers and marketing researchers are already anticipating what they’ll want ten years from now. Like most scientists, Dhingra is hesitant to gaze into his crystal ball and predict the future, but he has a couple ideas that seem like sure bets.

What we’ll see in wine, Dhingra thinks, is new flavors customized for specific market niches. “We already see this with blends,” he said, but grapes bred for particular palettes will produce more consistent results.

And the other aspect will be the ability of science to amp up the health-benefitting properties of grapes (and other fruits), resulting in wine that contributes to your long-term well-being. The past couple of months have seen a blast of media coverage for a compound called resveratrol, a naturally occurring plant protectant thought to contribute to a longer, healthier life (at least in lab mice). But nobody knows for sure if resveratrol is good for human health, and we certainly don’t know how it works.

In the future, said Dhingra, “we’ll not only be able to point to a compound and say, ‘That one has health-benefitting properties.’ We’ll be able to say how it benefits us.”

For more information on genomics at WSU, please visit: http://www.genomics.wsu.edu.