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Student Focus


COVID-19 Changes Internship Opportunities for Cornell Students

By Holly Elizabeth Staid ‘23

The summer of 2020 threw more than a few curveballs at Cornell Viticulture and Enology (VIEN) majors pursuing internships in California. From travel restrictions and lockdowns to wildfires and smoke, the ability to quickly adapt to shifting circumstances became the most essential job skill.

While U.S. wineries often hire many international summer and harvest interns, the Covid-19 pandemic effectively cut off that resource. Wineries are unable to hire internationally this year, so the Covid-19 pandemic has provided more opportunities for locals and those with less experience to work the harvest. For some Cornell viticulture and enology students, extended internship opportunities became a viable alternative to  returning to campus for school this fall.

William Melancon photo

William Melancon ‘23 says that these restrictions have had a significant impact on his family's Whitehall Lane Winery, a small scale premium winery located in the heart of Napa Valley. Melancon has worked at the winery for the past four summers, but for the first time this year he was able to stay through the beginning of harvest to help out before returning to Ithaca.

 “It was very valuable to learn how to adapt to public health precautions, and sanitation is even more important than usual.” His online classes allowed for this flexibility.  “I like having the opportunity for hands on winemaking experiences, especially how to learn proper wine making techniques from an experienced winemaker and cellar master.”

Marko Zaninovich PhotoMarko Zaninovich ‘23, decided to stay home in Bakersfield, California for fall 2020, working not only at his family’s winery Arroyo Seco Vineyards in McFarland, but also in the analytical lab of their table grape vineyard, Sunview Vineyards, to learn standard grape analysis techniques.

Taking a full course load remotely from home this semester, Zaninovich  has been able to continue his summer internship through the fall. “It's definitely possible now to work and do studies, which was not possible before online schooling."

 “After a year of Cornell education, the knowledge that I have gathered has been super helpful in understanding how the process works.  I've split my time between quality winemaking and bulk wine production in the Central Valley. I've learned that there are a lot of similarities but at the end of the day, winemaking specifics come down to the uniqueness of the winemaker.” Marko is working three days a week while taking a 15 credit course load.

“Working harvest this year was a new opportunity for me. Earlier in the summer I worked in fruit genetics. I was working with table grapes specifically, learning about genetic variety and seedlessness - how seedlessness works, and because I didn’t leave to come back to school I was able to finish the season in what we would call propagation - germinating these new crosses”. Directly upon finishing, Marko was able to move right into the winemaking side of things and work all the way though harvest. “I didn't have to leave and was not interrupted, which makes it a lot easier to move forward with new skills rather than having to refresh and retrain when going back to work.”

Michael Lovier ‘23, decided it would be more beneficial to take this semester off from school and use it as an opportunity to intern in California this season. “I was originally planning on taking a semester in France my junior year, but with Covid I thought pushing my internship up a year early and coming to Napa was the next best option!”

Lovier is from Skaneateles, New York but has been living in downtown Napa since June and interning at Grgich Cellars. His favorite aspect has been lab work and the tasting opportunities. Michael says he has gained “much appreciation for wine and this industry from being here.” He believes the skills he is acquiring this fall are much more valuable than what an online education could give him right now.

Holly Staid PhotoHolly Staid ’23. This summer I joined Melancon at Whitehall Lane Winery. During my summer internship I shadowed multiple positions, learning each aspect of the winery from field work with the viticulturist, to business operations, to cellar work and lab work. Working mainly with the winery's enologist, I was able to apply skills acquired through chemistry and wine labs at Cornell to wine sample testing on the job. Knowing why exactly I was doing something and how all aspects of it worked made my experience more interesting.

Clipboard with vineyard data I was able to get a glimpse into the diverse aspects of the business while filling in labor gaps resulting from Covid-19 travel restrictions. In the cellar I worked with Whitehall’s team and topped, bottled, filled barrels and completed other typical cellar operations. In the vineyard I performed estimates for the winemaker, including cluster counts, to aid in yield estimation. In the lab, I took Free and Total SO2 measurements, pH measurements, and TA (acidity) measurements. Of the tasks I executed, lab work was the most rewarding to practice after my first year at Cornell. Applying my knowledge and further learning through this hands on experience solidified these skills I acquired at Whitehall Lane.

While only working three days a week at Whitehall Lane this summer, I had the opportunity to work two days a week with wine author Karen MacNeil, helping with research and office work for the new edition of her book The Wine Bible. This experience allowed me to learn much more about wine evaluation, working side by side with Karen and reviewing daily wine flights with the Wine Bible team. A typical day started with appellation research, producing tasting templates, setting up for a flight, and making detailed notes during the tasting. By combining these two internships, I gained insight into how the details of wine production affect the final outcome.

I left California to return to Cornell days before the Glass Fire started. This fire burned the hills around Napa Valley for weeks and even burned across the valley floor. Fires throughout California this summer and fall posed a threat to many wineries and AVAs. Several wineries in Napa Valley burned down and many were affected by the smoke and evacuation orders. The fires in California posed more of a threat to winery operations than Covid-19 did. With premature and delayed harvests and power and smoke issues with the threat of smoke taint, wineries across California rushed to beat out the flames. The fires altered many winery operations, harvest techniques, and timing for most of the valley. Melancon noted that they “moved all of the crush operations inside, both for our health and safety with the smoke and also for the grapes.”

For the interns, however every hardship has silver lining - as Melancon commented, “It was a good experience working in a high stress environment in terms of making harvest decisions, with the potential of smoke taint and planning picking based on the availability of equipment and getting the grapes off the vine in the best possible time.”

Covid-19 safety restrictions prohibited indoor tasting rooms and limited tourist traffic for some wineries, while other tasting rooms were closed completely. Regulations still limit how workers can gather in normally busy spaces such as bottling lines. Masks and social distancing, along with extra sanitation precautions are just a few changes in the workplace. While these safety requirements involved extra effort, the students commented that they were less challenging to implement at their small wineries than at larger operations.

Of course prolonged indoor operations are inconsistent with Covid-19 best practices so it was hard to win on all fronts this year. In any case, for those of us rookies who gained experience in the industry this year, none could be found warming the bench. We all dove in and helped out where we could, developing our versatility and exploring our passion. My peers and I are excited for further experiences and the acquisition of skills in the coming years. We are hopeful for better conditions and safer environments in the future for all.

About the author: Holly Staid'23  is majoring in Viticulture and Enology, with a minor in Business. Having grown up in Napa Valley, she is passionate about a healthy outdoor lifestyle and the farm-to-table culture.