AWRI Commercial Services offers routine and advanced analytical and consulting services to grape and wine producers and industry suppliers. It also provides services to the broader agricultural industry and producers of other foods and beverages.
Impacts of bushfires and COVID-19
The Commercial Services laboratories had another strong year with total sample numbers (26,561) for 2019/2020 13% higher than the historic three-year (2017-2019) average (23,450). There were 349 new customers in the 2019/2020 financial year – an increase of 93% from 2018/2019. Both of these increases were predominantly due to the significant sample numbers associated with smoke taint testing. The increase in smoke-related analyses was somewhat offset by a reduction in the volume of routine testing for standard wine analytes during the 2020 vintage.
The bushfires across Australia in the 2019/2020 summer saw AWRI Commercial Services called on to analyse more than 4,600 samples for smoke before the end of June 2020, with a peak of more than 1,500 samples in a two-week period in mid-February 2020 (Figure 1). This compares to a total of around 600 samples analysed for smoke in a typical year. Although turnaround times for results did become extended due to the numbers of samples, over 82% of samples were reported in less than the targeted ten-day limit, with more than half reported in under seven days. Meeting these extreme demands involved the cooperative efforts of the entire organisation, with work being carried out seven days a week and every available instrument turned over to the effort. In total, 71 different AWRI staff were involved in the testing and interpretation of smoke results and the capacity for analysing samples was increased by almost 100% to an average of more than 90 samples per day. Lessons from this year’s fires will be used to improve services for future fire events, allowing higher capacities for analysing samples, more efficient processes to transport samples to the AWRI and smoother processes for reporting.
Just as the number of smoke testing samples was beginning to ease, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming clear, with significant restrictions introduced to businesses around Australia. The Commercial Services laboratory functions were deemed an essential service and as such allowed to continue to operate to support the Australian grape and wine industry. A number of changes were introduced to ensure the safety of staff and the continuity of services. These included moving all non-laboratory staff to working from home, creating shifts within the trace laboratory to reduce staff numbers present at any one time, introducing processes to sanitise samples on arrival and severely limiting access to the facilities for customers and couriers delivering samples. These processes allowed AWRI Commercial Services to continue operating with very little disruption.
Increase in demand for biological testing
The demand for the services provided by the Applied Biosciences team has grown steadily this year, with total sample numbers exceeding the previous three-year average by 21%. The recently developed beer microbiological services have a been a large contributor to this increase, as well as the 1,468 samples that were received for virus testing. A major focus for the year has been the integration of the recently acquired virus testing service into AWRI Commercial Services. This has included movement of the virus testing staff and laboratory testing infrastructure into the AWRI premises and the expansion of quarantine CA12 certification to encompass the virus testing services. Co-location of this service with other Applied Biosciences team activities has improved efficiency, resulting in improved turnaround times for customers. Commercial biological project work completed during the year included multiple winery and bottling line microbiological audits, a project relating to beer foam stability for a large brewery, a validation project for a rapid Brettanomyces detection flow-cytometry commercial kit, and several yeast-related trials for commercial yeast companies.
Bringing new services and technologies to industry
AWRI Commercial Services continues to provide a broad range of technical support services to the Australian wine industry, to ensure that new technologies and products are fit for purpose and meet the expectations of the final users. These are supported by a comprehensive suite of physical, chemical and sensory analyses. During 2019/2020, a number of shelf-life studies were carried out, to better understand product integrity and development characteristics for new products. Some of these studies used controlled exposure to environmental variables, such as temperature, to accelerate impacts and provide rapid performance data. These trials have led to the development of a dedicated small-scale packaging facility with the ability to package both still and carbonated products in a range of different packaging formats.
A number of projects have involved the evaluation of innovative new technologies for the measurement of different wine attributes, including some assessed for their ability to provide rapid screening of potentially smoke-affected grapes and wines. These proof-of-performance studies are carried out in conjunction with Commercial Services’ internationally recognised analytical laboratory, to ensure that reliable and accurate reference chemical analysis data is available for comparison purposes.