February 15, 2010

Wine Program Teaches Tangible Skills

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Philip Arras ’07 “fell into the wine industry accidentally.” After taking HADM 4430: Introduction to Wines in his senior year at Cornell, Arras developed a passion for viticulture that inspired him to take jobs in various wineries throughout the Finger Lakes region.

Today, Cornell students can follow a more organized path to become viticulturists. The Cornell Viticulture and Enology Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, created in 2005, provides aspiring winemakers with a detailed plan of study that begins with Hort 1104: Introduction to Wines and Vines and culminates in more advanced courses like VIEN4444:Grapevine Biology and VIEN 4430: Viticulture and Vineyard Management. The curriculum covers pruning techniques, grape selection and crop management. Some courses focus on the unique challenges that Ithaca winemakers face: spring frosts, a short growing season, and of course, cold weather.

“These are things we’re teaching in the Cornell program that they might just touch on in other programs,” said Prof. Bruce Reisch, horticulture.

Kathryn Carothers ’10 said she loves everything the viticulture program has to offer.

“It’s a really fabulous program,” Carothers said. “I can’t say enough good things about it.”

Carothers also hopes that the viticulture program will position her well for a job in the future.

“There are lots of good opportunities,” she said. “Wineries in the Finger Lakes are always hiring. It’s a booming industry.”

In addition to instructing students in the classroom, Reisch conducts genetic research at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. When he started working at the Agricultural Experiment Station in 1985, there were 35 wineries in New York State. Now there are over 250.

The researchers last achieved success in 1972 with the Cayuga White grape strain, which now makes up 10 to 20 million dollars worth of the wine industry, according to Reisch. More recently, Reisch and other researchers have been developing a pest-resistant strain of grapes that can be grown organically. One grape, which they developed 15 years ago, seems to be disease-resistant and makes good wines. After the field trial results come in the next two years, Reisch said, the grape will be released to winemakers.

“I don’t see any plateau coming,” Reisch said. “My work will be done when we have a grape for every need. We have only begun to scratch the surface of grape genetics.”

Cornell is one of two institutions west of the Rockies to offer instruction in winemaking, according to Prof. Ian Merwin, horticulture. Before Cornell initiated its program, students had to travel to Canada or California to learn about viticulture. Since the warm Californian climate calls for different techniques, learning about wine cultivation in Ithaca makes more logical sense for students who plan to work in the Finger Lakes region.

“We’re trying to educate the next generation of leaders in the New York State wine industry,” he said. “The students will be very experienced in the challenge of making grapes in this region.”

The program is not limited to students. Tim Martinson, the senior extension associate for the enology and viticulture programs, heads an effort to provide more formal instruction to those already involved in the industry.

“When some people start in the industry, they have family recipes,” he said. “They don’t have formal instruction. This is what the program provides to them.” Martinson hopes to target a national and international audience with the extensions program, which published its first quarterly newsletter in January.

Students who really want to further their passion for viticulture can join the Cornell University Viticulture and Enology Club, which aims to recruit 50-60 students in each class year. But even students who stop their wine education after the introductory course graduate with a better comprehension of how wines are produced.

“I think having 1000 people come through Cornell each year with knowledge of wine is a great thing,” Merwin said.

Original Author: Juan Forrer