V&E Undergraduate Alumni Reflect on Their Experience at Cornell
By Kathy Arnink and members of the Wines and Vines Laboratory class of 2021
History of Cornell’s Undergraduate Program in Viticulture and Enology
Compared to Cornell University’s long and impactful history with wine and grape research, the undergraduate program for Viticulture and Enology (V&E) is still young. Undergraduate education in V&E began in the early 1990s with one Food Science course in wine and beer appreciation and a single alternate-year Horticulture course in vineyard management.
Starting in 2003, Cornell students interested in V&E could pursue that knowledge by choosing concentrations within either the Food Science or Plant Sciences majors. In Fall 2008, Viticulture and Enology became an interdisciplinary undergraduate major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The V&E major now offers more than two dozen courses, covering the science relevant to grape growing and wine making, brewing, distillation, cider making and food fermentations.
Current Students interview V&E Alumni
After almost 20 years of undergraduate education focused on V&E, approaching 13 years with a V&E major at Cornell, it seemed appropriate to interview some of our graduates. Who better to do this than our newest V&E students? Research for this article was undertaken by this year’s Wines and Vines laboratory students, during their second semester at Cornell. Due to pandemic restrictions on number of students in the winery, this lab was a small group in 2021, and we wanted to provide a chance for them to interact (remotely) with some other V&E Cornellians during the semester.
Another goal was to hear from V&E alumni who followed different career paths since graduation and see how their education impacted their careers. The project was not meant to survey a large group of graduates and draw overarching conclusions about Cornell V&E alumni or the program. We thought of this as capturing a snapshot of a subset of V&E graduates. A small group of alumni were interviewed with the idea of speaking with at least one graduate from each of these categories:
- From a winemaking family (Abby Stamp '13, Lakewood Vineyards in the Finger Lakes).
- Working mainly on the viticulture side (Matthew Murray '13, vineyard manager at Pernod Ricard, in New Zealand).
- Working mainly on the enology side (Mari Rossi '11, assistant winemaker, DeLille Cellars, Washington State).
- Working in a V&E-adjacent business (Connor Roberson '18, Molson Coors Beverage Company).
- Working in agricultural business/finance side (Matt Gura '14, Ceres Partners ag venture capital).
- Working in academia (Misha Kwasniewski '12, assistant research professor, Pennsylvania State University, and Jay Owens '14, orchards manager, Cornell University).
We identified these former students’ current positions, but most of these alumni traveled and worked at different agricultural businesses prior to their current employment.
The Viticulture and Enology major at Cornell educates undergraduate students by offering three complementary opportunities. The first is coursework, covering basic sciences and V&E-focused knowledge, and including a heavy concentration on practical experience in the winery, vineyards and labs. The second is internship opportunities, and the third is undergraduate research. With this in mind, we have chosen to highlight comments reflective of these three aspects of the V&E experience for students.
Connor Roberson mentioned all three of these experiences when asked about his favorite things at Cornell. Connor said that Gavin Sacks’ wine flavor chemistry course, “rekindled my love for chemistry”. He had the opportunity to undertake vineyard research with Justine Vanden Heuvel’s and Gavin Sacks' research groups. In addition to taking a year’s leave to work a northern and southern hemisphere harvest, Connor also interned at Bin to Bottle in Napa, CA, for the one-month intensive experience they offer students each January. In addition, Connor worked in the Cornell Teaching Winery in Stocking Hall on campus. With all of this (mostly small) winery experience, Connor is now challenging himself in a new area, working for a large brewing company.
It isn’t, of course, only the V&E courses that profoundly impact our students’ academic pursuits. Part of the appeal of a Cornell education is the breadth of knowledge possible by taking courses across the university. Jay Owens found a soil science course to be integral to his success at his previous position as a vineyard manager for Gallo and, currently, as the Orchards manager at Cornell. Misha Kwasniewski also said, “the fundamentals I learned in classes that were general food science or soil science courses, for instance, also laid a solid groundwork.”
Jay Owens believes learning to find creative solutions to problems is the most important lesson he learned during his time at Cornell as a student. Abbie Stamp agrees with this, saying her Cornell education gave her “the scientific foundation and the critical thinking skills I needed for a career in winemaking.” These critical evaluation skills are mastered in many courses across the university campus.
As already mentioned, coursework is only part of a Cornell V&E education. Misha Kwasniewski stated that “Cornell facilitated getting me tapped into that network of people working in production, sales appreciation and research… These connections have helped my research and my career in innumerable ways”.
Mari Rossi mentioned the importance of practical experience as “the fastest way to gauge what part of the industry you are drawn to, while also providing invaluable real-world experience with the winemaking/grape growing process.” Mari found that summer internships during college cemented the knowledge she was learning in classes, and working in a variety of wineries after graduation helped her find a satisfying position in the Washington wine industry. “My love for math and science initially drew me to enology & viticulture, but the combination of science, creativity, and physically hand crafting a product that brings people joy is what keeps me loving my job.”
Fostering Diversity in the Wine Industry
Something that we heard was important to many of our V&E alumni agreed completely with a goal of faculty and staff working in the V&E major at Cornell—the desire to increase the diversity of people working in all aspects of the wine industry. That goal can be advanced partially by increasing the pool of students who apply to the V&E program, broadening the diversity of our V&E major students.
We know that you don’t need to come from an agricultural family to pursue V&E and succeed in the wine industry or other careers. Of the group of graduates we interviewed, most did not come from agricultural backgrounds, and that is typical of our student body each year. The challenge for the V&E program at Cornell, and for our alumni and supporters, is to find ways to show more students, from different backgrounds, what V&E is and why it might be right for them. Different perspectives strengthen our program and the industry. Matthew Murray advised students to travel, “There is so much value from meeting people from different countries, and from different backgrounds and different experiences.”
Quotes from Alumni About Their Chosen Careers
“I couldn't imagine myself in any other career. Winemaking incorporates such a wide variety of tasks and every vintage is different. It's hard to get bored and it's so rewarding to produce a finished product you are proud of.” (Abby Stamp)
“Cornell helped me narrow in on an industry that combines my love of math and science with a handcrafted, highly creative product. An industry that is small and collaborative, while also spanning across the world. Cornell helped open my eyes to a job that I love.” (Mari Rossi)
“I really love being outside, I grew up in agriculture and still work in it … The other bit is the international industry, you meet and interact with lots of different people from lots of different perspectives.” (Matt Murray)
“When I was an undergrad I was really terrified by the specialization of the program, but it turned out to serve as a great foundation to build from. Wherever your passion lies, you are really set up for success.” (Matt Gura)
“For me there is nothing more hopeful than pruning vines as I am tired of winter, or as satisfying as punching down a well-formed cap, feeling the pushback of a happy fermentation.” (Misha Kwasniewski)
Faculty and staff in the V&E undergraduate program at Cornell are impressed with our students and our alumni. It was gratifying to learn that the alumni interviewed by the students in the Wines & Vines laboratory course are happy with their choice of V&E major, whether they are in the wine industry or their career path has led elsewhere.
Kathy Arnink is lecturer in the viticulture and enology program at Cornell, where she teaches undergraduate courses in enology.