Aspiring Ivy-League winemakers will have the chance to get their hands dirty while earning a degree starting this fall when Cornell University opens a 2,400-square-foot teaching winery on its main Ithaca campus. The facility will be a key part of the school's new undergraduate majors in viticulture and enology.
For years, Cornell has had the top viticultural research program on the East Coast, providing scientific advice and guidance to winemakers in New York and other Eastern states. And the school has offered graduate degrees in viticulture and enology. "For 20 years, we've had a vinification and brewing lab at [Geneva Experiment Station] where all of our graduate programs are," said Ian Merwin, a professor in horticulture. "But our undergraduate programs are all at the Ithaca campus, so the new winery will be located here." Ithaca sits on the southern edge of the Finger Lakes wine region, New York's largest area for fine wines.
The winery, currently in the design stage, will feature an outside crush pad, a bladder press, stainless-steel destemmers, temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, a small bottling line, a wet lab, filters and a student tasting facility. Funding is being provided by the State University of New York system, of which Cornell is a member. The facility will be next to the university research fruit orchards. "It will be a place that will have everything we need to make wine, located right at the edge of the vineyards," said Merwin.
The New York wine industry, one of the oldest in the nation, has grown from just a handful of wineries and dozens of small growers specializing in Concord grapes to more than 250 wineries in five regions, many of whom produce well-rated vinifera wines. The state is the third-largest grape and wine producer in the nation. With that expansion comes an increasing demand for expertise in cool-weather grape varieties and growing conditions. The focus at Cornell, unlike that of programs on the West Coast, has always been on unique needs of cool-weather grapegrowing and winemaking.
For the past three years, Cornell has offered both winemaking and grapegrowing courses to undergraduates within its horticulture and food sciences departments, but only graduate students at the Geneva campus could seek degrees in either specialty. Now undergraduate majors in both viticulture and enology will be offered on the Ithaca campus. Merwin said he envisions accommodating about 40 students in the new programs.
The programs at Cornell have already benefited the local wine industry, according to Dave Whiting, co-owner of Red Newt Cellars in nearby Hector. "There's been a shortage of highly qualified winemakers, more so than in more established regions," said Whiting. "There are already a number of people who have graduated from the Cornell program working here." Among them is Whiting's assistant winemaker, Brandon Seager, who finished a graduate program at Cornell last summer.
Fred Frank, president of Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, is an alumnus of the Cornell school of agriculture. "When I graduated in 1979, there was only one course in viticulture offered at Cornell," said Frank. "So I went to study at Geisenheim, Germany, where the growing conditions were much closer to our own [than at the University of California Davis]. If you look at winemakers in the eastern United States, very few of them have degrees in viticulture or enology because there have traditionally been no schools here to educate them. This has slowed our growth."
As to whether or not the new Cornell winery will "go commercial" like the student winery at California State University, Fresno, and sell its wines in a local market, Merwin said it was doubtful. "We're right smack in the middle of the Finger Lakes and we don't want to compete with local growers and winemakers," said Merwin. "Maybe we'll do some auctions or fund-raisers. But this is really a teaching facility, not a commercial winery."
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