ST. HELENA -- With an early start for the winegrape harvest, the role of local wine labs in performing analytical tests has been extended. And one of the North Coast's longest-running specialty labs has been extending its capabilities.

More growers and wineries are relying on lab tests to craft a product that is consistent, and to help make strategic decisions during critical points in the growing season and throughout the wine making process, according to Gordon Burns, who with his wife, Marjorie, co-founded St. Helena-based ETS Laboratories (707-963-4806, etslabs.com) in 1978.

"We just passed the peak of lab activity during the harvest, starting with picking the grapes to the stage where wine fermentation goes malolactic," said Mr. Burns.

[caption id="attachment_82553" align="alignright" width="308"] Gordon and Marjorie Burns, co-founders of ETS Laboratories[/caption]

"We're analyzing over 1,000 samples a day with extended hours and expanded courier service throughout the harvest. Our turnaround on juice analysis is less than seven hours -- often only two to three. We've seen demand for our services grow (at a double-digit rate in recent years) to include more than 9,000 clients. Despite our current scale that allows us to provide a level of service unmatched in the industry, we cherish the fact that we still serve most of our clients from over 35 years ago."

With a staff of over 50 employees, ETS serves five regions from labs in St. Helena and Healdsburg; Roseburg and McMinnville in Oregon; and Walla Walla, Wash.. Labs are open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. plus extended weekend hours. Clients have 'round-the-clock access to online reporting tools.

The company also serves an expanding worldwide client list in Australia and New Zealand, China and Europe.

ETS lab technicians conduct over 265 different analyses. One or two new tests are added each year. Added in September was glutathione analysis, key to protecting the delicate nose of white wines.

"This test is important, since a low level of glutathione in grapes leads to lower levels in the juice and early losses of aroma compounds," Mr. Burns said.Big on R&D

Over 20 percent of ETS's budget is allocated for research and development, including gathering field samples, conducting on-site client visits and performing new studies.

[caption id="attachment_82554" align="alignleft" width="326"] ETS Labs intern Orin Frederick uses an Agilent Triple Quad LC/MS, an advanced mass spectrometer designed to deliver high levels of sensitivity for wine-sample testing.[/caption]

For example, by studying how natural corks transfer TCA to wine, ETS researcher Eric Herve, PhD, defined the concept of cork's "releasable TCA" over a decade ago. This measurement has become the tool of choice in the fight against cork taint worldwide, according to ETS. 

Dr. Herve also developed the ETS Oak Aroma Panel with its signature radar plot, allowing a quick visual assessment of a wine's oak aroma profile.

ETS tracks demand for the most requested test procedures in the top 10 to 40 categories to assess industry trends, and to determine where customers are focusing their emphasis when outsourcing lab work.

The 10 most common tests handled by ETS include L-malic acid; free and total sulfur dioxide; volatile acidity; ethanol; as well as chemistry panels, ethylphenols, Scorpions™ spoilage and bottled wine sterility panels, and sorbic acid.

"Grape producers in the Napa and Sonoma valleys have reached a high degree of maturity in the evolution of wine-growing techniques," he said. "They require quality analytical data to help them preserve and enhance the potential of high-quality grapes."

Getting a lab report showing numerical results requires interpretation. ETS conducts frequent seminars, publishes technical papers and has a team of consultants ready to help clients understand what the numbers mean.

"We don't provide prescriptions," Mr. Burns said. "However, based on over 35 years of experience and constant attention to new research and trends, we can offer a variety of options to help clients make informed decisions. This is where advanced and unique laboratory technology and the skill of highly competent winemakers and owners comes together."

ETS has a proprietary database and a search engine that that they use to provide clients with answers to their questions in real time -- including an extensive historical section devoted to data interpretation.

"Winemaking is a subtle and complex art," Mr. Burns said. "Unlike other industries where raw materials are controlled to be the same time after time, winemakers work with grapes of constantly changing composition and maturity. While it is possible to make wine with all art and no science, the best wines result from an intelligent combination of art and science."