Vail Wine Ink column: Wine 101: California’s institutions of higher learning |

Vail Wine Ink column: Wine 101: California’s institutions of higher learning

Students receiving grapes on the California State University, Fresno, sorting line.
Fresno State Department of Viticulture & Enology | Special to the Daily |


2014 Liberty School Merlot — Looking for a rich, lush Merlot for under $20? You should. Merlot is yummy. This offering from Liberty School is a great wine to highlight your spring BBQs or with braised or roasted meats. Dark berries with a hit of vanilla and California spice. And the Liberty School label has a pedigree: Now made by the Hope family, the brand was inaugurated in the 1970s by Chuck Wagner as a “second label” to Caymus.


So you want to be a freshman again? You can find out more about these and wine programs at the following websites:

• California Polytechnic State University Wine and Viticulture,

• California State University, Fresno,

• University of California at Davis,

“The Davis kids are very analytical, with a good understanding of science. The Fresno kids seem to be a little more hands-on and have a feel for the work and the vineyards. And the San Luis Obispo kids are always the nicest kids.” That was the breakdown from the senior winemaker at a California-based wine company that employs 20 enologists at any time.

Asked whether a company like his pays much attention to where applicants went to school, like an investment banking firm might favor graduates from, say, Duke over Princeton, he answered, “Not at all. We hire on winemaking skills, similar tastes and whether candidates seem like a good fit for our company and our wines.”

Still, if you are a young person wishing to work in wine, perhaps the clearest path to becoming a winemaker is to go to one of the best wine programs. In California, the University of California at Davis, California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo offer three of the most extensive and respected curriculums in the various aspects of the wine industry.

While not as old as Harvard, the viticulture program at the University of California has surprisingly deep roots. In 1880, the California legislature recognized the potential of the state as a world-class wine-growing region and mandated a program be established “providing for instruction and research in viticulture and enology.” The original department was located on the University of California campus at Berkley. The growth of the department, like that of the industry, was stymied by the introduction of Prohibition in 1919 before it was reintroduced on the campus at Davis in 1935. Since then, the Department of Viticulture & Enology has become the de-facto “Harvard of Wine.” Get a degree from the Davis program, and you will be virtually guaranteed a position in the wine industry. In fact, Davis proclaims on its website that 80 percent of the California wine industry has ties to the school in one way or the other.

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Davis’ focus on research and science in the study of wine was long considered the key to its success. But throughout the past decade, much has changed, thanks to the introduction of a number of new buildings and a renewed focus on the hands-on experience of winemaking.

Significant new facilities have been constructed on the Davis campus, including the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, the state-of-the art UC Davis Teaching and Research Winery and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Wine Building. All this for a program that graduates around 100 students annually.

South of Davis, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, is the Fresno State Department of Viticulture and Enology. Here, students get their backs into their learning. Perhaps the most unique aspect of a Fresno winemaker is that he or she actually participates in the making and selling of wine at the nation’s first bonded collegiate winery.

The Fresno State Winery, founded in 1997, produces, packages, distributes and sells wines like a regular commercial winery. through the website,, people can purchase student-made sangiovese, zinfandel and touriga, amongst other varieties.

Not far from the coast sits the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, home to one of the largest wine programs in the country. Close to 300 students are enrolled in the Wine and Viticulture Department at the school, which prides itself on providing a hands-on approach to the study of wine. Students work a 14-acre, state-of-the-art vineyard and, like the Fresno program, are involved in the production of a student-produced wine label. This allows for a fully integrated curriculum that takes students through the entire process, from vineyard management to winemaking to marketing.

‘Sip and Spit’ Law

In 2014, the California legislature took another step in helping to ensure the future of the industry when it passed a “Sip and Spit” law. Assembly Bill No. 1989 allows students who are registered in “qualified academic institution” and at least 18 years old to participate in sensory analysis courses where they can taste and spit wine and beer.

The law, which gives students younger than the legal drinking age of 21 special dispensation, strictly mandates where and when the students may drink. But it is a significant step for those enrolled in the programs at these institutions of higher learning.

While some may have majored in drinking in college, it is possible now to spend four years learning about wine without getting a single hangover, just a degree.

Ah, progress.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at

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