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Practical Perspectives: The New York Industry in the Viticulture and Enology Curriculum


By Kari Richards

Vineyard Management Class
Justine Vanden Heuvel's Viticulture and Vineyard Management class at the 200-acre Betts Farm near Westfield, N.Y. Owners Thom (right, red sweatshirt) and Bob Betts (holding baby Henry Creasap Gee) grow Concord grapes for the juice industry. Lake Erie Viticulture Extension Educator Jodi Creasap Gee stands at far right

For decades, Cornell Horticulture professors have taken advantage of nearby Finger Lakes vineyards and wineries for afternoon lab sessions in pruning and winemaking techniques with their students. With the establishment of Cornell's Viticulture and Enology (VIEN) program in 2008, these field experiences have now expanded to other regions. From the juice grape vineyards of Western New York to the high-end wineries on the North Fork of Long Island, New York's growers and winemakers play an active role in educating Cornell VIEN undergraduates.

Virtually all of the 15 courses in the VIEN program incorporate visits with off-campus growers, winemakers and business owners. These field trips play a vital role in giving the students perspective, which is particularly important in an industry where there's not one right way to do things.

Thom Betts
Thom Betts demonstrates a 'layering' technique used to fill in vine skips in his Concord vineyard near Westfield, N.Y.

Spring finds assistant professor of viticulture Justine Vanden Heuvel's Viticulture and Vineyard Management students in Western New York for a day-long immersion in juice grape production. The day covers a lot of territory, from the National Grape Cooperative and Cornell's Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory in Portland, N.Y., to area vineyards.

Students were recently hosted by Bob and Dawn Betts, who operate their 200-acre Concord grape farm with the help of their 20-year-old son Thom. "It's always a positive experience—as the students learn, we are also learning," Dawn Betts said. "We're always looking for new ideas. It's nice to show how we run our operation."

That's a win-win for students like junior Plant Sciences major and Viticulture and Enology minor, Kathryn Abbott, who appreciated seeing firsthand the differences between juice and wine grape production.

"It was interesting to see how vineyards are managed when high yields and low costs are a priority, as opposed to the lower yields and high quality fruit production stressed in wine grape production," said Abbott. "I was amazed at how the Betts, a family of three, can manage a 200-acre vineyard so efficiently."

Rich Olsen-Harbich
Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, N.Y., explains winemaking practices to students

Fall takes students to the other end of the state, when Vanden Heuvel and Kathy Arnink bring their Grapes to Wine students to wineries on Long Island. Students tour barrel rooms and do tastings, walk the vineyards, and talk with owners and sales managers. They also visit Cornell's Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center to discuss experimental cultivar evaluation and production trials for their more moderate climate.

Students taste wine
Students taste wine at New York Wine Industry Workshop on April 14.

Assistant professor of enology Gavin Sacks brings his Wine and Grape Flavor Chemistry students to the annual Wine Industry Workshop, so students can learn about technical winemaking issues and mingle with the audience of local winemakers and winery owners. The sessions also expose them to the latest research from top wine scientists, including invited speakers from the West Coast and abroad.

"It's an opportunity for students to see that winemakers and researchers are engaged in an active dialog. Even our most experienced and talented winemakers are looking for new ideas and new ways to explain the things they've observed over their careers," Sacks said.

Food Science graduate student Misha Kwasniewski credits the workshop with giving him the chance to integrate into the industry community. "It helped me understand how research is disseminated and to see how the industry concerns influence research objectives," he said.

Sometimes it is the industry that takes a field trip into the classroom. This spring, Johannes Reinhardt, the winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company, spoke to Understanding Wine and Beer students about his small-scale experiments in the winery to try out new winemaking ideas. Other courses bring in experts on topics from sales and marketing strategies to the intersection of science, intuition and winemaking.

"The field trips and guest lectures provide a fundamental link between classroom concepts and real-world application," Vanden Heuvel said. "I can't imagine teaching students about what growers and researchers are doing without connecting them with the people and places."

Students and professors alike benefit greatly from the numerous industry members who share their time and expertise with Cornell VIEN students. Their participation is greatly appreciated and is an integral part of the VIEN students' education at Cornell.

Kari Richards is the undergraduate coordinator for the Cornell viticulture and enology undergraduate program.