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Cornell University Creates Undergraduate Winemaking Degree

The program, the first of its kind east of the Mississippi, will focus on cool-climate varieties grown in the Finger Lakes and Long Island

Eric Arnold
Posted: October 5, 2005

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., which is well-known both for its hospitality program and for its agricultural research, has created new undergraduate programs in viticulture and enology. This is the first time that four-year bachelor's degrees of this kind have been offered in the eastern United States. The viticulture program will fall under Cornell's existing plant-science major, while the enology program will be a concentration in the food-science major.

"In the Finger Lakes and Long Island, the wine-grape industry is growing so rapidly," said Ian Merwin, professor of horticulture at Cornell, who helped design the program. "We were hearing pretty clearly from the wineries and the vineyards that they needed trained people."

Cornell, which is located in the Finger Lakes region, already has enology and viticulture programs at the graduate level and has long conducted research, as well as outreach programs for New York wineries. The undergraduate programs are essentially a reorganization of many existing courses, with the addition of several new ones. The faculty spent about 18 months developing the curriculums and involved various New York winemakers and growers in the process. Merwin said the questions posed to them were fundamental to the curriculum that emerged: "'If you were an 18-year-old going to college, what should we be teaching these students? What do they need? What skill sets? What scientific background? Do they need to know marketing?'"

Much emphasis is being placed on what isn't addressed by the renowned viticulture and enology program at the University of California, Davis. "We have a different focus, much more on cool-climate viticulture and making wine from grapes like Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and a lot of the hybrid grapes," Merwin said. "There's a need for a program in that area."

Each concentration involves five or more courses on top of the normal requirements for the major, plus electives. Majors in plant science concentrating in viticulture will have to take courses such as grape-pest management and farm-business management, while food-science majors concentrating in enology will take courses such as sensory evaluation of foods and food engineering and microbiology.

Some of the undergraduate courses will be taught by video conference from Cornell's Geneva Experiment Station (about 90 minutes from Ithaca), where 17 faculty members and several graduate students conduct research on topics such as grape diseases, nutrition, vine physiology and morphology, wine microbiology and wine flavor chemistry.

Cornell also plans to hire more faculty. "We're looking to hire two new enology professors who would bring some more breadth to the program, with more phenolics and color chemistry, and probably another microbiologist," said enology professor Thomas Henick-Kling. Because more professors are needed, the new undergraduate courses are being phased in. Cornell expects to graduate students from the new programs in May 2007.

Although many students will be under the legal drinking age of 21 when they enter the program, wine tasting will be an aspect of certain courses. Merwin said that, according to university lawyers, state laws allow underage students enrolled in viticulture or enology courses to taste wine if it's a mandatory part of the curriculum, as long as the quantities poured are small and the students spit the wines.

Much of the focus will be on the hands-on aspects of viticulture and enology. "An essential part of the curriculum is student internships in vineyards and wineries," said Merwin. "Students have to do at least one full-summer internship, and we have a long list of vineyards and wineries that would like to get students. It's a hands-on science, not something you read about in a textbook and then go out and do."

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