A Degree in What?

By Posted on Aug 29 2009 | By


It Helps to Have a Sheepskin When Converting  Grapes into Serious Wine

Virginia is ranked fifth in wine production nationally, behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York.

More importantly, however, is the quality of wine emanating from our state. In the last ten years, Virginia has increasingly garnered national attention due to its rising wine superiority. Proprietors of our wineries have labored hard to improve their vineyard and cellar operations. What often began as a hobby or a very small business for many has grown into a thriving commercial industry. These rigorous efforts to increase quality are paying tasty dividends for Virginia wine lovers.

winemakerBut another emerging impetus for the rise in quality is the arrival—in increasing numbers—of professional winemakers. These are experienced experts whose careers are centered on the commercial production of fine wine. As in most endeavors, a quality education counts.

The basic process of converting grapes into wine is simply a matter of letting yeast plunge into the fruit. After that, nature takes over. Yeast gormandize on the sugars in grape juice, creating carbon dioxide, alcohol and, of course, wine. Beyond that, keeping your environment clean would seemingly be the only steps in producing wine. Think again.

To take wine production to the level consumers expect today, a winemaker with a four-year degree in enology is a valued asset for any winery. Owners intent on achieving a reputation for consistent quality are increasingly handing the keys to their cellars over to these pros. This nascent movement is certain to further enhance Virginia’s wine reputation in the years ahead.

Just as you would expect your financial planning manager to possess a degree in finance or business, a growing number of wineries are hiring winemakers that have earned a Bachelor of Science in Enology and/or Viticulture.

DiplomaAn enology degree, or the scientific study of winemaking, derives its name from the Greek words enos for wine, and logy for study. Viticulture is the study of grape growing and vineyard management. Together, these two disciplines combine to produce what is America’s fastest growing libation of choice.

The surging national interest in wine is also providing career opportunities for enology graduates interested in pursuing a career associated with the finer things in life. From a strictly financial perspective, the occupation of professional winemaker offers substantial job security; especially if they land a job at a cellar producing more than 5,000 cases a year.

Many analysts think the wine industry is largely recession proof. During these difficult economic times, AC Nielsen reports that wine sales showed the greatest growth of any category over the previous year. The number of stores selling wine increased 24% in 2009 over 2008. Even box wines sales shot up 41% during the same period. It seems when times get tough, the enjoyment of wine is enhanced by the calming effect on ones nerves. Good news for winemakers.

In the United States, there are a limited number of colleges offering degrees in enology and viticulture. Among the oldest and finest are the University of California Davis and California State University, Fresno. Washington State University also has a degree program, as does Cornell University in New York. Understandably, Cornell’s focus is on wines grown in the cooler regions of the East Coast’s continental climate, while the California schools curriculum is centered on wines produced in its Mediterranean climes.

Our own Virginia Tech in Blacksburg does not offer a degree in enology or viticulture. Currently, there are not a sufficient number of potential candidates to support a separate degree program. But, the university provides the state’s wineries invaluable support through its Grape Chemistry Group. Dr. Bruce Zoeklein, an internationally known enologist and specialist in Virginia winemaking, heads the department and is widely credited with Virginia’s wine advancement in the last two decades.

While the romance of winemaking is undeniable, anyone considering a degree in enology or viticulture will quickly face the intellectual demands behind earning the sheepskin. Past strong academic performance is a valued asset. A four-year degree program involves intense and often-grueling work centered on chemistry, mathematics, statistics, biology and related sciences. It is not a degree to be pursued for those who pulled all nighters to pass chemistry 101.

Lab vesselsOver the course of four years, a student will drill deeply into the world of chemical analysis of fermentations, microbial control, yeast conversions, clonal impact, sensory evaluation, plant physiology & pathology, macroeconomics, genetics, winery management, marketing and more. Scholars must bring their A game to class each day.

In addition to the rigorous classroom and lab work, students often perform internships. These off-campus assignments provide opportunities to apply their hard-earned book learning to the real world environment of a winery. This is where the rubber meets the road—or more appropriately–where the vine meets the wine. Producing wine, in a real time environment, rounds out the campus experience and puts the finishing polish on a student’s educational bona fides.

Once a person becomes a professional enologist, there often follows a self-elected tour aboard to gain further insight into the wide-range of winemaking styles. It is not uncommon for a professional winemaker to travel to France, Italy, Australia, Chile or other major winemaking nations to further burnish his or her credentials and gain a broader understanding of the art and science of winemaking.

Here in Virginia, we have winemakers not only with degrees earned in the United States but also France, Italy and South Africa. These vintners are attracted by the potential in Old Dominion wines. Wine talent often would rather advance professionally and become leaders in Virginia, rather than labor in obscurity in California or France among an army of enolgists.

In point, it is these individuals that are setting the stage for Virginia’s next leap to wine greatness. As the quality of our wines improve, pressure is increasingly brought to bear on all state wineries to excel. To stretch the point a bit, one might claim that in Darwin’s wine world of natural selection, it’s not monkeys that are evolving to a higher level but grape cultivation and winemaking.

wine glass IIINone of this discussion is meant to diminish the achievements of the self-taught winemakers who have placed Virginia on the national wine map. Their impressive accomplishments are evident with each bottle we open. Nevertheless, we are poised to have a growing cadre of professionally trained and talented artists further advance Virginia’s national wine reputation.

Published in the 2009 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES