Ohio now offers wine-degree program

Suppose you’ve had thoughts – serious thoughts – about becoming a winemaker or maybe starting your own vineyard. In years past, you would have to look out of state for a college that offered an enology (winemaking) or viticulture program. Now, however, Ohioans won’t have to leave the state at all.

Kent State University’s Ashtabula campus will begin offering a new two-year enology and two-year viticulture program this September – with the potential for students to earn a four-year degree by taking both programs.

“Before now, anyone who wanted to earn a degree like this went to the West Coast or to places like Missouri or Illinois,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “I asked, ‘Why not Ohio and Michigan?’”

Winchell and others approached the National Science Foundation for a grant about 10 years ago, and received $400,000 in response. The program has been percolating ever since, says Winchell, but it didn’t really gain steam until four years ago when the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) became involved. VESTA was founded about eight years ago to serve wineries between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains – and the group worked steadily with both the Ohio Wine Producers Association and Kent State University to finally push the program forward.

“Classes will be both face-to-face and online, and there will be internship opportunities available at local wineries,” Winchell says. That’s why the courses will be held at Kent State’s Ashtabula campus, she adds. “That’s where a lot of the wineries are.”

There will be a wide assortment of classes offered in each of the two-year programs, ranging from winery law to sensory evaluations, winery safety, vineyard safety, and marketing for small wineries.

Sam Fagnelli of Lakehouse Inn and Winery at Geneva-on-the-Lake says he plans to enroll in some of the enology classes. “I’m self-taught and I’ve taken seminars here and there, so this is an opportunity for me to improve my winemaking skills and take them to the next level,” he says.

In addition to the classes, there will be wine production internships offered in the fall that will allow program participants some real-world, hands-on experiences.

“Initially, there will be 10 or 11 Ohio wineries that will be involved,” says Winchell. Eventually, though, she’d like to see that number grow to 20 or more.

Of course, Ohio wineries will gain something by offering internships, not only in terms of help at harvest time, but also in the wineries’ future ability to hire a higher-quality, better-trained work force.

Tony Debevc of Debonne Vineyards in Madison, Ohio, is one of the winery owners who will make internships available to Kent State students. “I’ve had interns in the past,” he says. Many of those have been foreign-born enology students who returned to their country of origin after they completed school. “If they come from this area, though, they’re more likely to stay here and work at local wineries” he says.

That’s important for two reasons. First, it helps when everyone at the winery is familiar with wines and the winemaking process, says Debecv. “In California, the people working in retail sales know about wine and are better able to explain and sell wine to their customers,” he says.

But there’s another reason. “The wine industry is growing so fast here that we’re going to need more qualified people to step in and help,” says Debevc.

Winchell agrees, adding that was part of the impetus behind the wine degree program. “We now have an opportunity here in Ohio to help the industry grow its wine staff and transition it to a younger generation,” she says. Ohio, after all, ranks in the top 10 wine-producing states in the country and contributes more than $500 million to the state’s economy. That’s why Winchell and others involved in the wine degree program consider it an investment in Ohio’s wine industry.

“We have a responsibility to ask where this industry will be in five or 10 years,” says Winchell. Kent State’s new wine degree program will help prepare a younger generation to come in and take over the leadership and ownership of Ohio’s wine industry, and, by doing so, Winchell adds, help assure its future.

For more information about the new wine-degree program, visit www.vesta-usa.org/main

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