The allure of winemaking has attracted a menagerie of professionals to the business. Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program has lured aerospace engineers, Army medics, apparel designers, scientists, and many others to the field. Here, we bring you a few of the stories of those who have changed careers by hanging a left at wine.

After years of dissecting rat brains, Berenice Burdet had had enough.

The Argentinian neuroscientist was untangling stress’s web of physiological effects on the hippocampus. The stress we feel in a crammed subway train, Burdet says, affects our behavior by dampening affect. We become depressed, and activity levels decline. The same thing happens to overcrowded rats, and the effects can be traced in the brain.

Berenice Burdet
Berenice Burdet in a Prosser WSU research vineyard (Photo Robert Hubner)

But you have to kill the rat to see those changes in its brain, she says, “and a point came where I didn’t want to kill any more animals.”

“So I started looking on the internet to see what I could do in the wine industry.” Through a series of fortunate events, she connected with Markus Keller, Washington State University Chateau Ste. Michelle Distinguished Professor of Viticulture. “In Argentina, my family was always intrigued by the wine industry in Mendoza, and I had studied a little enology.”

Keller, for his part, jumped at the chance to hire an experienced biologist to study the molecular process of sugar transport in grape berries. How water and sugar move through grape vines and berries is key to helping vineyard managers produce great fruit—and to prepare for the effects of climate change.

As if shifting from neuroscience to the molecular biology of grapes wasn’t a big enough jump, Burdet recently headed back to Argentina’s world-class wine country…to open a brewery.

She laughs, saying, “I know it’s a bit odd, but I want to help open Argentina to craft brewing.” Argentinians are used to fairly light beers. “When my mom came to visit me at the WSU research station in Prosser, she couldn’t handle some of the beers we tried. But by the time she left, she loved IPA!”


Get married, have kids, move to a different part of the world—these are a few of the ways people initiate major changes in their lives. Not Richard Larsen. He walked across the parking lot.

Larsen worked for 21 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, studying the viral pathogens of important food crops, including beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils.

Richard Larsen moving grapes
Richard Larsen at the WSU Wine Science Center in Richland
(From video courtesy The Seattle Times)

Before he turned to science, though, “I majored in music performance,” he says. He was a professional clarinetist and vocalist before earning a doctorate in plant pathology.

“But I’ve always been fascinated by wine,” Larsen says.

Soon after Larsen took the virology position with the USDA in Prosser, he met WSU’s wine science team, which was then based at the research center there. Larsen signed up for a palate training and discovered that he had a rare gift: He could detect not just small but truly minute differences in wines that most of us would say were from the same bottle.

When enologist Jim Harbertson joined the wine science team, “We hit it off right away,” Larsen says. “Jim has an amazing palate, so we formed an enological friendship.”

Harbertson and his colleagues embarked on an ambitious project, installing in Prosser the largest research winery in the Pacific Northwest. A winemaker was needed to manage the multitude of experiments the team wanted to conduct. Larsen got the job.

Now that the research winery has moved and expanded to the Tri-Cities campus, Larsen spends his days happily conducting experiments among a myriad of fermentation vats, teasing out the data that help inform decisions made by grape growers and winemakers in one of the world’s great wine regions.


It was a rainy evening in 2010 in a swampy region of southern Iraq, and Robb Zimmel was slogging through mud so thick it nearly swallowed his combat boots. A sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserves and leader of a 10-member forward surgical team, Zimmel was getting chores done in the medical tent after a busy day.

Wind whipped its way through the tent, causing the new soldiers to worriedly glance around. It almost sounded like gunfire.

Robb Zimmel
Robb Zimmel at the WSU Wine Science Center in Richland (Photo Robert Hubner)

A team of Navy SEALs burst in with several severely injured sailors. A medic with more than two decades of experience in the military and as a civilian, Zimmel jumped into action. He and his surgical team fought through the night finding emergency transport and performing blood transfusions. All of the sailors made it, though one nearly died.

As the Iraqi sunrise capped another sleepless night of nonstop, adrenaline-fueled battle to save his fellow Americans, Zimmel knew one thing with certainty. He needed a change.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told his wife over the phone.

Within a year, Zimmel was at WSU as a wine science student. Four years later in 2014, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology. By late 2016, Zimmel had released seven wines under his own label.

“What I like about the winemaking process is it’s a completely different contrast of what my past life was. Being in the medical field, there’s not a lot of joy involved. You’re always called to the worst of the worst. People are hurt. They’re injured. They’re sick. You learn a lot about what humans can do to one another in a bad way,” Zimmel says. “With winemaking, you come to an event, and there are smiles. People are happy. I get to be a part of a celebration.”


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