Wine's Higher Education

An increasing number of universities are training future wine professionals as the $46-billion-a-year industry grows
Wine's Higher Education
Kaleigh Flynn shows off a bottle of wine made by students at Finger Lakes Community College. (Courtesy Finger Lakes Community College)
Jun 22, 2018

"The U.S. wine industry at this time is facing a massive labor shortage," said Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at Walla Walla Community College in Washington state. "If it isn't already hitting the wine industry like a ton of bricks, it's going to." But colleges and universities across the country are looking to help. In wine regions new and old, schools like Walla Walla are making wine education programs a priority.

The evidence is visible in new programs and buildings springing up. In California, Sonoma State University opened the Wine Spectator Learning Center in May to provide a home for its growing Wine Business Institute. In Oregon's Willamette Valley, Linfield College unveiled the Grace & Ken Evenstad Center for Wine Education in March. Schools in other winemaking states—including Washington, Virginia, Michigan and New York—have tasked themselves with developing and growing their educational initiatives in viticulture, enology, wine business and other related specialties.

The growing need

Sources say that enrollment numbers for students in wine-related programs are steady at schools like Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC), Fresno State, and the University of California at Davis, and on the rise at others like Washington State University (WSU), SSU and California Polytechnic, but they don't believe it's enough. "Every time I'm out meeting with industry folks, or even if I sit at my desk, I get a phone call and somebody says, 'I have a job here, do you know somebody for me?'" said Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, WSU viticulture and enology program director.

"Part of the issue is that people don't typically think of grapegrowing or winemaking as a pathway through higher education," said Paul Brock, owner of Silver Thread vineyard and associate professor of viticulture and wine technology at FLCC, which offers an associate of science degree in viticulture and wine technology. "Students graduating from high school generally are not aware of the wine industry as an option."

But a growing U.S. wine market and a demand for more professionals shows there's definitely a need. Wine is now an industry with $46 billion in annual sales, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. "Fifty years ago there were 40 to 50 wineries, 20 years ago there were approximately 800, and now there are greater than 4,500—just in California," said Karen Block, director of industrial relations in U.C. Davis' department of viticulture and enology, which offers a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology and multiple related master’s degrees.

Hoping to keep wine healthy and growing, many education programs receive support from leading members of the industry. And the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation has raised more than $20 million to support wine and food education over the past 30 years, including Sonoma State, the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology and WSU's Viticulture & Enology program, as well as culinary and hospitality study programs.

Alumni from schools like FLCC and Cornell, many of whom now work in the industry, also see the importance of wine education.

"I believe that a greater number of people are drinking and expanding their knowledge about wine, and with this enthusiasm comes greater opportunity for skilled industry jobs," said Devin Shomaker, an FLCC alumnus and co-owner of Rooftop Reds in Brooklyn. "This is the basis for FLCC's viticulture and wine program."

"My degree imparts a broad understanding of the wine industry and all of its moving parts, and I apply what I learned in my undergraduate enology and viticulture studies every day," said Whitney Beaman, regional sales manager at Bedell Cellars in Long Island and a Cornell University alumna. "Robust, science-based wine education is key to advancing our industry."

For a more up-and-coming U.S. wine region like Michigan, viticulture and enology programs help foster growing recognition, says Michael Moyer, director of wine and viticulture at Lake Michigan College, which offers a two-year associate in applied science degree in wine and viticulture technology.

"Before the Judgment of Paris in 1976, California wasn't taken seriously for its wine production, and 10 or 20 years ago, New York wasn't taken seriously for its wine production," he said. "Now things have changed. We hope to see the same thing happen in Michigan and I believe that our education programs are a big part of that."

Theory versus practice

When U.C. Davis was training California's budding winemakers a few decades ago, a knowledge of sound science was the focus. Now programs are balancing science and practical skills.

California Polytechnic State University will open a new Center for Wine and Viticulture in fall of 2019, complete with a commercial winery where students in the viticulture and enology bachelor’s degree program will be producing cool-climate wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

"Students get to pick the grapes, crush them and process them," said Federico Casassa, professor of enology. "They're pretty much following the standard procedures of the wine industry—also fermenting them, barreling them down, filtering them and finally bottling them."

Commercial wineries have also become a core part of programs at schools like Fresno State, Lake Michigan College, Walla Walla Community College, U.C. Davis and FLCC. Students at Cornell and WSU also work at educational wineries on campus.

There's been a large shift—and a greater need—for wine schools to be treated like trade schools, says Donahue. "By running a wine school as a trade school, we're able to drill four years’ worth of winemaking education into students," in Walla Walla's two-year associate degree program, he said. "I think we've spent a lot of time trying to chase this high-level science, and I think we sort of forgot about the craft."

But the science hasn't gone away. Transfer agreements between Walla Walla and Washington State University (WSU) allow students the chance to gain practical experience, like in Walla Walla's two-year program, and later move on to WSU for the higher-level science courses. "Going through the community college for the first two years and then two years after that at WSU is was one of the best educations you can get," said Henick-Kling.

Beyond the cellar

"I've heard it said that for every one winemaker, there are 100 non-winemakers in the industry," said Kevin Smith, wine business and marketing manager and lecturer at Fresno State, which offers a bachelor’s degree or minor in viticulture, a bachelor’s degree or minor in enology and a master’s degree in viticulture and enology. His wine business classes aim to teach students who might have an interest in the industry beyond winemaking, in areas like sales and marketing. As part of the curriculum, students launch fictional wineries, write business plans and service accounts.

The aim is similar at Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute, a program offering wine classes and research on topics like globalization, technology and changing regulations, with undergraduate and master’s degree programs strictly focused on the business side of the industry. "Good quality wine is the starting point, but not enough to assure success in what has become an increasingly competitive market [for businesses]," said Dan Virkstis, marketing and communications manager at SSU. "That's why so many winemakers and vineyard managers are enrolling in our graduate wine business programs."

At Linfield College, the school is focusing on covering the basics. The four-year liberal arts school has been offering a wine studies minor since 2015, but will begin offering wine studies majors in the fall, designed to help students get a taste of the field before joining a more hands-on viticulture or enology program later on.

Similarly, at Virginia Tech, there's a range of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs that include wine, including a new viticulture minor for the horticulture department, as well as a recent food and beverage fermentation plan of study option in the food science and technology program, complete with internship opportunities.

"What we have heard from the industry is that they are looking for strong, liberal arts–trained students who understand the entire spectrum of growing grapes, making wine and the business of wine," said Gregory Jones, director of the Grace & Ken Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College. "Programs such as ours will never replace viticulture and enology programs, but provide a pathway for students to find their niche within other areas of the wine sector."

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