Preparing your winery laboratory for vintage
There are a number of things to consider in preparing your wine lab for vintage. The major areas of laboratory equipment and the consumables needed to run them, the calibrations of the equipment and the standardisation of the consumable solutions are discussed below.
The membership of proficiency programs is also promoted as a way of checking that your lab is running well and doing what it is supposed to do: generate accurate data so that sound decisions can be made during the winemaking process in the rush of vintage.
One of the major upsets that can happen in a busy laboratory, such as a wine lab in vintage, is to run out of consumables. There are often delays in restocking during this very busy period. Although there are numerous suppliers for basic things such as chemicals (like sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide) they are not always available in the correct pack size or concentration or they may not keep specialised items in stock.
So one of the first things to do to prepare for vintage is to go through your consumables cupboards (chemicals, glassware, filter papers etc) and do a stocktake on what you have. A well organised lab should have records of what was ordered the previous vintage. Compare this list to your current stock and decide what you need to buy to ensure you have everything covered.
Ask yourself a few simple questions:
- have we purchased any new lab equipment since last vintage?
- did we have any supply problems last vintage?
- were there any consumables we ran out of?
- did we introduce any new tests or change tests that require different consumables?
Our experience has shown that trying to get the cheapest items by shopping around may not always be the best course of action. Poor delivery and lack of technical backup are sometimes the reasons why the product is cheaper.
Remember also that if you leave this order to the last minute, some suppliers will have a Christmas shutdown, and even those that are open usually only have a skeleton staff and may not be very helpful during the Christmas / New Year period.
Next on the list to check is the equipment you need to run your lab. Do any parts of the equipment need replacing, maintenance or spare parts?
One critical item that comes to mind is the pH meter electrode. We consider these to be a consumable that lasts a year or less, but many people expect them to last for many years. Our experience is that they don’t, and being used for such a critical measurement, and usually costing less than $200 to replace, we don’t hesitate to replace them if we think they are not performing well.
If you have a spare parts cupboard go through and make sure you know what everything is and where it is. There is nothing worse than trying to find these on the busiest day of vintage when a piece of equipment fails, the winemaker is screaming for results and the fruit on the vine is shriveling in the heatwave outside.
If you think you need to keep stock of any spares, or you haven’t replaced items used during the year, the time to restock is now, not in the middle of vintage.
Standard Operating Procedures
Most good labs have at least some written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on how to perform the various tests that are done during the vintage period. These should all be up to date, legible and readily available.
If some changes, improvements or problems were noted in the procedures during the last vintage they should now be incorporated into the relevant SOP. If you still have bits of paper shoved into a plastic sleeve or stuck on the wall, now is the time to get them typed up and filed correctly.
Many labs get casual vintage lab help. The SOPs should be in good order so that the casuals can be trained quickly and efficiently in the first few days. Having casuals running around not knowing what to do is more of a hindrance than a help. Having good SOPs for them to refer to rather than pestering you on the day of the heatwave/bushfire/flood (yes these calamities can and do happen in vintage!) is a good policy to follow.
Training Sheets are also a good idea. We use these with all new recruits in our labs. They can include the major learning points in each test method and safety issues to look out for; they should be signed off by the lab supervisor once the new recruit has demonstrated competence in the test method of concern. Our new staff are not permitted to do any test unless these forms have been completed.
It’s all very well to have your equipment and consumables in stock, but do you know if everything works as it should? It’s one thing to do lab tests, but a much harder thing to ensure you are getting accurate results.
These are the background tasks that are not obvious to a non lab professional. Running NATA accredited labs to ISO 17025 (as we do) means that failure to perform these tasks on time and with the correct results can result in loss of accreditation.
Standardising solutions, such as 0.1 M (molar) sodium hydroxide (NaOH), is crucial to ensuring accurate titratable acidity results are obtained. Likewise for 0.01M NaOH and sulfur dioxide measurements. I won’t go into detail on how to do these as procedures can be found in most good wine chemistry text books.
The main point is that they should be done on a regular basis, records kept of the results and all reagent bottles labeled accordingly. If you are not doing this then you could well be flying blind with your testing.
Calibrating lab equipment is another critical task. Balances, micropipettes, spectrophotometers, hydrometers and refractometers (to name the most common items of equipment) should all be calibrated on a regular basis.
According to NATA some of these items only require to be calibrated once a year, some once a month. Again if you aren’t doing this with well written SOPs and good records kept, you could be generating inaccurate results for the whole of vintage.
Standardisations and calibrations are the most important measurements to be done.
Every test you do with a non standardised solution or a non calibrated piece of equipment could give erroneous results. Wine made using dodgy lab data is at risk of being faulty itself. This cannot be stressed enough.
Unfortunately these measurements, although very important, are usually never urgent and can easily be forgotten. I suggest you do so at your peril.
Proficiency programs can be your saviour.
The not-for-profit Interwinery Analysis Group (IWAG) program is an excellent way for you to check just how accurate your results are.
For $A350 a year, you get sent 12 sets of samples that you test and then submit your results. Your results are then compared to all other wine lab IWAG members and a report is sent to show you where your results sit compared to everyone else’s.
Whilst not foolproof, this is a very inexpensive way to get an outside, confidential opinion of your lab’s proficiency from many others in the same boat. Other proficiency programs are generally very expensive but are also useful, we are members of most of them, which is a condition of our accreditation.
Even if you are not running an ISO 17025 lab, you should very seriously consider joining IWAG, their newsletters and annual meetings are also very useful.
Running a wine lab in vintage can be a very stressful occupation. The better prepared you are, the easier it can be to survive the vintage period. Our 15 years of running an accredited wine lab has taught us many things; hopefully some of the above tips will help you to get through this vintage a bit more easily.
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