A Salute to Fresno State's Winemaking Program

    School was never like this when I was in college back in the… uh… well, it really doesn’t matter when I went to college!

     (Can you tell that your faithful editor is fast approaching one of those “milestone” birthdays? Which one? To quote Chelsea Clinton, “It’s none of your business.”)

     Okay, re-focus, Bob. College. Never like this. Like what? Well, just read the following story from the Fresno Bee…


   Fresno State’s new wine-tasting room is not in a posh, or even pastoral, setting.

     The wine is poured in a corner of the rustic campus market that sells university-produced milk, ice cream and meat – a sign that campus vintages come from a different kind of winery.

     California State University, Fresno, started the winery 11 years ago, calling itself the first American university licensed to produce, bottle and sell wine commercially. Over the years, it has produced about 600,000 bottles and small profits. Some vintages have won awards, but they’re a difficult sell outside the region, one official says.

     Students and graduates commend the winery for giving them practical experience. But whether tax-supported Fresno State poses unfair competition to area wineries risking their own money remains a nagging question for some vintners.

     In December, the Fresno State Farm Market began offering wine tastings. Wine lovers Bob and Jacque Garcia of Fresno focused on sensory details recently after sampling, then buying, a bottle of Fresno State Syrah there. “It had a big bouquet,” said Jacque Garcia, 56.

     Pleasing to the palate, added Bob Garcia, 60, who observed it’s logical for Fresno State to operate a winery. “It’s the perfect setting, don’t you think?We’re in the middle of agriculture country.”

     The university’s winery is one of 69 commercial wineries in the central San Joaquin Valley and one of nearly 2,700 in the state. Annual revenues have averaged $384,935 over the last decade, while profits, plowed back into the winery, averaged $26,759, officials said.

     Suggested retail prices on Fresno State wines range from $7 to $22 a bottle.

     The winery lost money over two years, mainly because it made more wine than it sold. The biggest loss was $38,512 in fiscal 1999-2000, with profits during the next several years covering that loss.

     Running the winery is major work for university officials.

     “If you’re making 20,000 gallons of wine a year, you can’t just stack it in a room, you have to sell it,” said Robert Wample, chairman of Fresno State’s viticulture and enology department. (Viticulture is the science of growing grapes; enology is the science of winemaking.)

     Professors who started the commercial winery wanted students to learn the science, art and business of winemaking.

     From the arrival of the first harvested grapes to the last bottles coming down the bottling line, students are involved either through class work, volunteer time or paid positions, said Ken Fugelsang, enology professor and wine master. Fugelsang and John Giannini, a staff winemaker paid with winery revenues, oversee the students’ day-to-day work.

     Students say they like the wide-ranging opportunities, although they’re not equally fond of all aspects of the industry. “The romantic side of winemaking was killed the first day we shoveled out a tank,” 41-year-old Kathe Kaigas of San Diego said of the messy job.

     Marc-Antony Martinez, 24, of Stockton added, “You couldn’t get a more realistic view of your career.”

     Eleven undergraduates received enology degrees in the 2006-07 school year, and 100 enology students were enrolled last fall. This summer, 12 viticulture and enology students from Fresno State will participate in a four-week wine and grape education program in Europe at the invitation of a Swiss university. Swiss officials contacted Fresno State because of its international reputation, the university said.

     While an enology degree is necessary for a job in the industry, experience leads to better positions, said Fresno State graduate Nichole Birdsall. She earned her degree and became a winemaker in Mendocino County before getting a job in Michigan, where she’s overseeing production of 100,000 cases a year and developing a 35,000-square-foot winery facility that will boost production.

     At 35, that’s a big opportunity she wouldn’t have gotten so soon in California’s highly competitive industry, Birdsall said.

     Such competition leads some wineries to specialize in three or four wines to build market share. Fresno State’s winery produces 20 or so [varieties] each year so students get experience with red, blush, white and dessert wines.

     Fresno State bottled about 8,000 cases in 2007, or about 96,000 bottles. The vintages are sold mainly in several Valley grocery stores and wine shops.

     California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, is constructing an experimental winery where students will gain production experience but not sell the wine. Construction is expected to be finished this summer. The state’s other major enology program, at the University of California, Davis, also runs an experimental winery, as Fresno State did before starting the commercial winery.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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