ASHTABULA, Ohio — With northeast Ohio leading the way in the state’s wine production, it made sense to implement a degree program in the area. In the fall of 2011, Kent State University in Ashtabula unveiled a set of two-year degree programs to keep up with a rapidly growing wine and grape industry.
Studies of enology (the science that is winemaking) and viticulture (growing and harvesting of grapevines) opens up a new field of employment.
“You don’t have too many people in the industry with a degree,” said David Scurlock, Ohio State University viticulture outreach specialist. “A lot of people are self trained. There is a lot of trial and error.”
Since its installment, the program has reached 80 students through online courses and hands-on work in the industry. Currently there are 26 students in the program, with four expected to graduate in December and two already accepting jobs in the industry, said Lori Lee, acting program director.
So far, the program has graduated seven students who have all been placed in a job in the industry, Lee said. These jobs involve everything from the growth and production of vineyards, to the science of creating the perfect bottle of wine and even the marketing of wine.
Is it for you?
A lot of times, people will just take a course to see what it is all about, explained Lee. She recalls a student who thought he might purchase a winery and after taking some classes, “he decided it wasn’t for him.”
Others truly excel and discover a niche. Nancy Evans, a recent graduate of the program, was looking for a change of pace. She had previously graduated from Kent State University with a degree in accounting and business.
“I pursued both enology and viticulture with the idea I would go and see which one I wanted to do,” said Evans. “I also thought it was important to understand both,” from a winemaker’s and a grower’s perspective.
Currently, Evans works for a wine packaging company in New York — an unusual career path to stem from the degree, but she feels her experiences gave her a sense of credibility as a saleswoman. “I can speak to the winemakers and I understand the process,” she said.
Evans’ first internship, as an assistant winemaker in New York, gave her the full experience of producing wine. Her next internship would lead to her first job in the industry, working as a manager at a relatively new winery.
Evans managed to get a wide array of experiences during her time in the wine degree program and she credits small class sizes and close interactions with professors and industry professionals to her success.
“That’s the nice thing about the Kent campus. Because it is smaller, you can have more personal relationships,” said Evans.
“During my practicum, I worked side-by-side with the director (of the Ohio State research vineyard) through the spring working on viticulture.”
All viticulture course students are required to spend a portion of their time working in a vineyard as part of their studies. Lee explains this could mean working at the OARDC field station in Kingsville or, for students who don’t live near campus, pairing up with a vineyard close to them. Enology students are likewise required to spend a certain amount of time working with a winemaker, where they learn everything from chemical analysis to applying the right amount of sugars.
“By the end of two years, students should be functioning (whether that’s running a vineyard or making wine) with minimal supervision,” said Lee.
Small class sizes are not uncommon for the fairly new degree. “I had a class with three people in it,” said Evans. “So we all have gotten to know each other well and keep in touch. We applaud one another’s successes.”
And according to Evans, everyone she knew who went through the program is employed in the industry.
“We are looking at 100 percent placement,” said Lee. “That tells me there is a demand. They are getting jobs.”
“When we talked about bringing the VESTA program to Kent State, we agreed we needed to make sure those graduates had jobs,” said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.
VESTA, or the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance, is a partnership between 17 universities and two-year colleges across the nation that provides education in grape growing and winemaking. The goal is to provide an opportunity for those looking to pursue careers and opportunities in fields related to viticulture and enology, explained Winchell. There are many wineries across the state where owners are getting older and have no one to take over, said Lee. “Those are the types of things our students will be able to take over.”
Ohio’s wine industry
Ohio has 2,000 acres of vineyards and around 400 growers, said Ohio State’s Scurlock. The average acreage per vineyard is around 5 acres, but Scurlock said vineyards in Ohio range anywhere from 1 acre to 170 acres.
There are now 233 licensed wineries and about 30 more in the works, he said
“When I started (in March of 1980), there were 24 wineries. The grape and wine industry at that time was mainly concentrated along Lake Erie in the northeast plus the Lake Erie islands and along the Ohio River in the southwest,” he said.
“Now vineyards and wineries are practically in every county due to some of the more cold, hardy grape varieties that open up areas that were too cold before,” he added.
“Sixty percent of Ohio wineries were established less than eight years ago,” said Winchell. Growth will inevitably continue, she added.
For more information on Kent State’s wine degree programs, click here.
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