Jan. 6, 2016

Cornell wine expert Ben Gavitt dies at 59

Ben Gavitt in lab
Ben Gavitt

Ben Gavitt ‘79, director of Cornell’s New York State Wine Analytical Lab in Geneva, New York, who helped improve the taste and quality of wines made in New York and around the world, died of cancer Dec. 25, 2015, in Union Springs, New York. He was 59 years old.

A native of Ithaca, Gavitt joined Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in 1979 after earning his microbiology degree from Cornell. In 1989, he became a research and extension support specialist at the nascent Wine Analytical Lab, where he established himself as an expert in winemaking and wine analysis. His work supported winemakers by detecting flawed wines at various stages of production, helping to save countless barrels across the region as the Finger Lakes grew into an internationally recognized wine leader.

Gavitt was the key figure in a lab providing more than 25 different chemical, microbiological and sensory analyses of juice, wine and distillates. The lab allows wineries to detect trace elements like copper and iron that can affect wine stability, and make the precise measurements vital for quality assurance, trouble shooting and federal regulatory compliance.

During his career, Gavitt used advanced analytical methods to test thousands of wines for problems from contamination to fermentation issues. Many jobs started with Gavitt receiving an urgent phone call from winemakers about a problems they could not solve alone.

“Ben spent his career improving wine in New York, and was a great friend to winemakers across the state,” said Chris Gerling, enology extension associate at the Experiment Station. “Many a young winemaker has heard Ben’s voice over the phone say ‘Lots of people make this mistake, so don’t feel special, OK’?”

Gavitt demonstrated an impressive work ethic throughout his career while also earning a reputation for his gentleness and optimism, said NYSAES director Susan Brown.

“Ben was exceptionally kind and well liked,” Brown said. “He had a ready smile, a quick laugh and was always willing to lend a hand to anyone, whether a student, faculty, staff or industry member.”

He and his wife, Mary-Jo, bred and showed numerous award-winning Persian cats under the name Noblessa Cattery. He also served on the Union Springs school board for the past 16 years.

He is survived by his widow and their son, Nathanial. He is predeceased by his son, Patrick, who died at the age of 20.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.