When fourth-generation Texas winemaker Maureen Qualia set out to study enology in the early 2000s, she had to go all the way to California to do so. “At the time, there was no wine education in the state of Texas, at least not in higher education,” she says. She left her family’s Val Verde Winery, located in the border town Del Rio, and moved west to pursue a master’s degree at California State University-Fresno, colloquially known as Fresno State.
During her time in California, Qualia gained valuable experience working as a phenolic researcher at Napa Valley’s Silver Oak Cellars, an assistant winemaker at Trione Vineyards and Winery in the Anderson Valley, and as head winemaker at J&J Cellars in Paso Robles. Meanwhile, the wine industry back home was rapidly growing. When Qualia left Texas in 2005, the state had around 50 wineries. By 2013, when she returned that number had grown to 270. Qualia took up a role in Texas Tech University’s Viticulture and Enology department, which during her absence had grown from a two-year viticulture certification program in 2007 to a four-year undergraduate degree in viticulture and enology. “My intention in going to California was always coming back to participate in the growing Texas wine industry,” says Qualia. “If it wasn’t for our local programs, I don’t think we would have seen this exponential rise in quality that we’re seeing.”
Today, the Lone Star State touts more than 500 wineries, 340 growers, and over 5,000 acres devoted to grape-growing, and, as with many emerging wine regions, its local viticulture and enology program played no small part in its growth, fueling innovation and boosting the quality and status of local wines—and inspiring native Texans like Qualia to return to put their winemaking skills to use on their hometurf.
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How Research Programs Help Wine Regions Grow Strategically
Most established wine regions are closely associated with a nearby grape growing or winemaking program. Napa Valley’s esteemed wine industry wouldn’t have reached such great heights without the University of California at Davis (UC Davis), a top agricultural school whose researchers and faculty helped shape the region into the global powerhouse it is today. In New York, Cornell University has undoubtedly helped catapult wineries in the Finger Lakes and Long Island by assisting them in navigating new research, farming techniques, and technologies through their respective cooperative extension programs. And in Washington State, wineries depend on the up-and-coming winemakers coming out of the viticulture and enology program at Walla Walla Community College.
Now, as rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, and labor shortages impact wine production across the globe, wineries and researchers in other up-and-coming regions are recognizing how important it is to nourish their mutual relationship—and how, by working together, they can effectively boost a local wine economy.
In recent years, several colleges have prioritized their viticulture, enology, and wine business programs. Last August, Washington State University welcomed its first class of students in its newly created viticulture and enology department. Around the same time, the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) opened the Justin and J. Lohr Center for Wine and Viticulture, a $22 million, state-of-the-art project that aims to further cement Cal Poly’s link to Central Coast wineries in neighboring AVAs, such as Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, and the recently established San Luis Obispo Coast.
Western Colorado Community College’s Viticulture and Enology Program at Colorado Mesa University got a recent boost when Napa Valley legend Warren Winiarski’s charitable foundation provided a $150,000 grant to help further advancements in the young Colorado wine industry. The funds generated an endowed scholarship and research focused within the Grand Valley AVA, where 80 percent of the state’s grapes are grown.
There’s also a steady stream of investment flowing into top grape breeding programs such as the one at the University of Minnesota, where researchers are focused on developing high-quality, cold hardy varieties—work that impacts emerging wine regions in the Midwest and beyond.
“It’s wonderful that we’re creating these grapes, and we’ve got an $80 million a year, 10,000-job industry here in Minnesota,” says Drew Horton, the enology specialist for the University of Minnesota Grape Breeding and Enology project. “But holy cow, I’m so impressed by what they’re doing with these grapes in marginal areas like Nevada or Canada, places you never would have considered having a wine industry before.”
A Way to Find and Funnel New Talent into a Region
For an emerging wine region, access to a nearby grape research and winemaking program can be the make-it-or-break-it variable. Since returning to Texas, Qualia has watched the state’s wine industry grow with the expansion of local education—and vice versa.
Texas Tech offers the only four-year degree for viticulture and enology in the state, a program that started in 2009. The public research university also offers non-academic certificate programs (a viticulture concentration launched in 2007, followed by a winemaking concentration in 2012) that are geared towards second-career individuals. Combined, graduates of the programs total well over 1,000 students—a sizable group of wine professionals that have gone on to shape and propel Texas’s industry forward.
“When you look at a winery map of Texas, someone from almost every winery has been through one of our programs,” says Qualia. “I represent a very small percent of people who are able to pick up their life, travel, and move across the country to learn a new skill.”
When a university’s agricultural research priorities align with those of neighboring wineries, the chances of success increase. That’s certainly been the case in Virginia, home to a young but exciting wine industry that has grown from 46 wineries in 1995 to more than 300 today, earning respect among sommeliers and wine buyers along the way.
Many credit Virginia Tech’s viticulture extension program for putting Virginia on the wine map, especially the recently-retired viticulturist Tony Wolf, who served there for 36 years. Without the university’s involvement, Virginia’s wine industry “would not be as advanced as it is right now,” says Tremain Hatch, a viticulture research and extension associate at Virginia Tech and part of the father-son team behind Zephaniah Farm Vineyard in Leesburg, Virginia. “Until about 2000, a lot of research needed to be done in Virginia, just simply to help determine how to keep wine grapes alive in our environment. Determining the best production practices, the best varieties, was a tall order.”
Now, grape growers and Virginia Tech researchers work in tandem to tackle issues or challenges as they arise, keeping the growth of the state’s wine industry on track. “One of the benefits of this type of relationship with growers is that I can respond to [winemakers’] requests relatively quickly,” says Virginia Tech grape pathologist Mizuho Nita, who has worked for the last five years to address and find solutions to significant issues such as ripe rot and powdery mildew.
“[Virginia Tech’s program] helped do important research but also provided a platform where growers could share what they were seeing,” says Hatch. “It helped us move forward really rapidly.”
Without Ties to Programs, Wine Regions Can Struggle
What happens when a wine region doesn’t have a local program to turn to for agricultural guidance or to find talent? They often have to entice grape growers and winemakers from other states and regions to take a chance on a lesser-known area, which can be hit or miss.
That’s certainly been the case for Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, New Jersey, where one of the winery’s biggest hurdles isn’t fluctuating weather patterns, it’s finding—and keeping—winemakers who are up to the challenges involved when making wine in the Garden State. Someone coming from the West Coast, for example, might not necessarily have experience dealing with pests like the spotted lanternfly and diseases such as powdery mildew that are prevalent throughout East Coast vineyards.
Despite viticulture being the fastest growing segment of agriculture in New Jersey, it doesn’t yet have an established viticulture or enology program, which some believe is holding the state’s industry back. “We’re at the critical mass in New Jersey,” says John Cifelli, the general manager at Unionville Vineyards. “If someone entered a four-year program as an 18-year-old today, by the time they graduated there would be at least 100 different wineries and vineyards that need trained staff.”
In an effort to meet the growing demand for skilled winery workers, Rutgers University recently launched an eight-week Grape and Wine Science Certificate Program to train Jersey workers in the growing field of viticulture. It’s not as ambitious or thorough as a four-year degree program would be, but the certificate is a place to start.
“We want to have a successful program that fulfills people’s personal aspiration for knowledge and training but we also want to fulfill the needs of the local industry. It’s time to bridge that gap,” says Beverly Tepper, who created the program and also owns Crosswicks Creek Winery with her husband, Mark Pausch. “New Jersey wineries used to be known for their fruit wine, not serious table wine,” says Tepper. “That’s changing, but you need knowledgeable workers to get there. I really feel we’re on the cusp. We can be the next Finger Lakes in the years to come.”
Of course, the problem of finding vineyard and winery staff well versed in a local wine region’s quirks is not unique to New Jersey. “In Texas, especially in the Hill Country, we have a lot of disease pressure that doesn’t exist on the West Coast,” says Qualia. “So we get West Coast winemakers that come in, and they don’t typically last very long.”
It turns out the best place to find and train the next generation of winemakers for these emerging wine regions is within them. “We can’t produce enough students to fill the needs of the local industry,” says Qualia. “Every single one of our former students has a job in [Texas wine] at this point.”
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Shelby Vittek has written for Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, the Washington Post, Modern Farmer, National Geographic, Liquor.com, and Plate Magazine, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bigboldreds.