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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Viticulture and enology courses are hands-on, collaborative and prepare you for diverse career options

A tight-knit major and its department teach the science behind winemaking and cultivating grapevines 


By LYNN CHEN — features@theaggie.org


Economics, computer science, philosophy, statistics… and viticulture and enology? These are all different majors at UC Davis for undergraduates –– but, what exactly does viticulture and enology offer?

The Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis is well-respected and praised. According to the department’s chair, David Block, Ph.D., members of the department have driven innovation in grape growing and winemaking in California and beyond for over 135 years. After all, campus is only 45 minutes away from Napa Valley, one of the world’s elite regions for wine-growing. In fact, UC Davis has strong connections with wine researchers and producers there as well.

Viticulture is the study of grape cultivation, while enology is the study of wine and the winemaking process. Students taking viticulture and enology (VEN) courses learn about the physiology and growth of grapevines, the world history behind grape growing, the chemistry, microbiology and sensory science of wines, as well as the technologies and chemical processes involved in winemaking.

To some, it may be surprising just how much of a “hard science” the major is, according to Patricia Howe, Ph.D., and lecturer for the Department of Viticulture and Enology.

For instance, the prerequisites for the VEN major include STEM classes that a pre-med student would take as well.

“You take physics, chemistry, biology and statistics,” Howe said. “If you are a scientist, this is a good field.”

VEN majors also participate in hands-on classes regarding wine production, sensory evaluation and wine stability.

“Our department also has a lot of hands-on experience through our laboratory classes,” Ron Runnebaum, Ph.D., an associate professor for the department, said.

Additionally, many students in VEN can also further practical applications of their knowledge through internship and research opportunities. Students may intern at a winery or vineyard over the summer, or travel abroad to famous wine-making regions in countries like France or Italy.

Furthermore, the field of viticulture and enology is an especially interdisciplinary subject.

“This field allows you to make connections across different specialties,” Howe said. “Lots of times, if you’re a biologist, all you do is biology; if you’re a chemist, all you do is chemistry. But, as a winemaker […] you need to be able to draw on all of your education, and sometimes even more. [For example], there’s a surprising number of philosophy majors that are winemakers.”

Equipped with high reasoning and logical thinking skills, philosophy majors can easily draw upon the sciences as viticulturists or winemakers.

“It’s an integration of all of the types of learning that you have and applying it to real world problems,” Howe said.

VEN also goes beyond its subject by employing skills one wouldn’t necessarily associate with STEM majors. For example, learning to use proper descriptive language is just as important as in hard sciences.

“In our class on the sensory evaluation of wine […] a large aspect of that is learning how to describe wines,” Runnebaum said. “Part of the labs [of that class] involve having sensory standards and being able to recognize them and describe them. Not everyone grows up with the vocabulary for wine, so [developing communication skills] is important.”

He stressed the importance of future winemakers being proficient in describing how wine products affect our senses, like taste or smell, in order to improve the quality.

Howe also agreed with Runnebaum’s point stating, “I mean, how many newspapers have a column on engineering, right? A lot of newspapers have a wine column or a restaurant review column, so I think that shows from a day-to-day living and cultural standpoint how talking about food and wine is important.”

The skill of effective communication has always been a useful tool to viticulture and winemaking, according to Runnebaum. Historically, wine grape growers needed to visually examine the plants and articulate their physical features, such as the leaf structure or characteristics of the clusters of berries.

“Now we have tools where one can look and compare the genetic makeup of a grapevine,” Runnebaum said.

In addition, VEN majors have to be able to collaborate well with others.

“A lot of [courses] are not just you working by yourself in a laboratory class, but also [you] working as part of a team. […] You’re developing skills that will be helpful once you go into the [wine] industry,” Runnebaum said.

At UC Davis, VEN students have the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of peers.

“I would say that one of the things that makes UC Davis so special is that there’s diversity, not just from a cultural standpoint, but from a professional standpoint as well,” Howe said.

Because viticulture and enology offers a wide array of job possibilities in the field, making friendships and networking in Davis could lead to connections in the larger winemaking industry and beyond. 

“I have classmates that are college professors now, I have classmates that are winemakers now and I have classmates that left the wine business. There’s a lot of connections from the people I met when I was a student,” Howe said.

Katarina Kent, a second-year viticulture and enology major, shares the same sentiment to Runnebaum and Howe.

“Communication is really big, because anybody you meet you’ll probably end up working with in some way or another in the future,” Kent said.

Viticulture and enology branches to diverse career paths as the industry itself is intricate and complex in its own way.

“You can go into grape growing or winemaking, and the companies that hire a graduate can be everything from a mom-and-pop, two-person tiny winery to a huge international conglomerate,” Howe said. 

Howe furthered that there are even possibilities of specializing which ranges from doing microbiology at an established company, breeding grapes or being an engineer that supports the winemaking equipment and facilities.

Job applicants can also go into the more commercial and business oriented aspects of the industry, such as marketing or human resources.

“I use the analogy of baseball a lot,” Howe said. “You can be a baseball player, but you can also be a coach, a groundskeeper, a bus driver or a physical therapist.”

All in all, VEN majors have the freedom to select future employment opportunities tailored to their interests.

Despite being quite a flexible option, VEN is still one of the more niche majors on campus. However, some perceive this as a benefit.

“It’s a really small major,” Kent said.  “[But] that was kind of something I was looking for.”

Possibly because of its smaller size, the major has a close community.

“The major itself and the community around it [are] quite tight knit,” Kent said. “I’m really looking forward to making connections [with others in the major].”

Wine is a drink of pleasure and studying viticulture and enology is a source of joy for many too. This is true for Kent.

“Hopefully, I can work in a winery one day, be able to make wine and give people the chance to appreciate good wines.”

Written by: Lynn Chen — features@theaggie.org


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