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Student Focus

Students Explore Viticulture and Enology with Senior Capstone Projects

By Marin Cherry

VIEN bottle display in Stocking Hall.  Photo by Robyn Wishna.

Capstone projects, designed by Cornell Viticulture and Enology students, bridge the gap between the classroom and workforce for graduating seniors.

As part of the Viticulture and Enology program (VIEN) in 2010, students are encouraged to examine a wide variety of topics through their capstone project.  These projects are designed as multi-semester, intensive efforts aimed at providing students with the opportunity to synthesize acquired knowledge in an area of their interest.  During the past six years, capstones have ranged from developing vineyard management plans to an analysis of fat bloom in chocolate.

“For the students, the capstone is an opportunity to add to our understanding of enology, viticulture, or a related field outside of the constraints of the classroom,” said Gavin Sacks, Director of Undergraduate Studies for VIEN. “The generation and sharing of knowledge is the unique role of universities in society, and the capstone ensures that students creatively participate in this part of university life.”

Capstone project topics are developed by the students themselves during the spring semester of their junior year.  Students work with capstone advisors to refine the scope and format throughout the spring and following fall semester.  During their senior year, students are required to enroll in the fall course VIEN 4000, Capstone Project in Viticulture & Enology, and deliver a presentation to faculty and their peers the following spring.  In addition, students enroll in research credits or an independent study to focus on their capstone work during their senior year.

Capstone projects often go beyond the Teaching Winery or laboratory, sometimes ending up in wineries and vineyards around the United States and the world.

“Students often seek out counsel or collaboration from industry members, who are enthused to provide assistance and utilize our students’ knowledge,” said Sacks. “From the faculty’s perspective, great capstone projects can also be a low-risk launching pad for new ideas.”

These projects are also the foundation for the next steps after college, whether preparing recent graduates for an interview or specific skills for the workforce.

“The capstone project gives students something unique and personal to talk about,” said Sacks.  “Capstones provide students with great experience to discuss during interviews, instead of just giving generic answers.”

This year, eight seniors are preparing capstone projects.  Flexibility to choose their project topic allows students to gain practical knowledge, and provides a sense of independence during their final year.

For example, Paul Hendershot ’17 is exploring the use of ale yeasts in cider production.  His project was sparked by a cider-focused internship experience and an interest in staying in step with industry trends.

"It's a great opportunity for student to explore new areas of research or focus on a topic of interest,” said Hendershot.  “Cider is certainly a rapidly-growing part of the beverage market and I'm looking forward to the new lecture and lab for cider production that starts next semester." 

Senior Sarah Todd '17 (right) works with MPS student Jer Lin Poh '16 (left) in the student teaching winery.  Photo by Robyn Wishna.

“These projects are a good way for students to work independently,” said Sarah Todd ’17. “I was fortunate enough to base my capstone directly on a topic I’m passionate about.”

For her capstone, Todd is examining tannin additions and blending in producing muscadine grape wines.  She is particularly interested in muscadine grapes because they do not require many of the fungicides that vinifera varieties do. 

While many capstones focus on wine and grapes, students are not required to stay within this realm.  In addition, aside from independence in choosing a topic, students also value the ability to bring together knowledge accumulated over their four years at Cornell.

“I like that we can do anything, but I figured that it would be more appropriate to work on grapes,” said Anne Repka ’17.  “The capstone lets me apply things I’ve learned, including some grapevine biology basics.”

Repka is working on a quantitative trait locus (QTL) analysis of cold hardiness in grapes, looking at the genetic foundations of what makes certain grape varieties cold-hardy. The idea for this project came from a VIEN internship with the VitisGen Project in Geneva, NY, where she was phenotyping and conducting QTL analysis for black rot resistance on a grapevine population.  Wanting to investigate these populations further, Repka collaborated with Jason Londo, research geneticist for the USDA-ARS, to test a new phenotyping method for determining cold hardiness, an important limitation to viticulture in New York State.

“It’s great to be able to show examples of these analyses and really validate what we’ve learned,” said Repka. “I also like that it’s an opportunity for research-minded students.”

Overall, for many VIEN students, capstone projects are one of their most meaningful undergraduate experiences.

“It allows us to really take ownership of a project,” said Hendershot.

Marin Cherry is an undergraduate program coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Food Science.