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Agriculture and Food

A Grape Time: Students Process First Harvest at New Wine and Vit Center

Three wine and viticulture students work on a destemmer machine and toss green grapes onto a conveyor belt.
Written By Gabby Ferreira // Photos by Joe Johnston

On a weekday morning before the start of fall quarter, trucks loaded with wine grapes harvested from Cal Poly’s Trestle Vineyard arrived behind the JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture just as the sun started to peek over the horizon.

As the cartons of grapes stacked up near the processing equipment, a group of fourth-year wine and viticulture students — the first students to ever work in the new center — prepared for a Learn by Doing experience like no other.

Wine and viticulture students receive instruction on the new destemmer machine.
Students Toby German, Olivia Capiaux, Mikaela Wessel and Taylor Robertson receive instruction on the new destemmer machine.

“We’re being trained on state-of-the-art equipment, and it’s setting us up to be successful in the industry,” said Taylor Robertson, one of the students working on this year’s Cal Poly grape harvest. This is Robertson’s second harvest; she’s also worked at Chamisal Vineyards. “I’m really excited to focus on the technology and chemistry aspects of the process.”

The completely donor-funded center in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences opened to students this fall and includes a state-of-the-art, 5,000-case bonded winery, a fermentation hall, bottling room, barrel rooms and a research lab.

“It is paramount for us to give our students a real-world winemaking experience,” said Jim Shumate, lecturer and winery supervisor. “Our new production and teaching winery, along with all the new equipment that was donated to the college, will give the students a head start on their winemaking careers.”

The students filed out to the crush pad in the back of the building, where they loaded

A student uses a plastic pitchfork to pull wine grapes onto the destemmer machine.
Wine and viticulture student Toby German uses a pitchfork to pull wine grapes onto the destemmer machine for processing.

grapes into a destemmer machine, which de-stems and lightly crushes the grapes. They each took on a different role in the process: student Toby German used a pitchfork to push the grapes out of their containers and into the machine, while Robertson, Mikaela Wessel, Olivia Capiaux and Nolan Maas evaluated grapes on the conveyor belt, picking out dried leaves and other debris.

“I love the processing line. It’s satisfying work,” Capiaux said. This fall quarter is her first harvest at Cal Poly, but she worked on a grape harvest in Paso Robles last year. The smaller size of Cal Poly’s harvest is ideal for paying attention to detail and learning to be precise, she said.

The students worked with Shumate and associate enology Professor Federico Casassa.

A professor looks over the destemmer machine during grape processing.
Professor Federico Casassa checks progress during processing.

“It’s truly invigorating to see our students interacting with and being exposed to every facet of the winemaking process for them to see the science of the process at work,” Casassa said. “It’s full circle from an educational standpoint for them.”

“I’m excited to work with them,” Maas said of Shumate and Casassa, adding that both instructors take the time to explain and answer students’ questions. “This is my first harvest, and the instructors have made it a great learning experience.”

Wessel agreed, adding that the experience aligns well with the way she learns best: through hands-on work.

“I wanted an in-depth Learn by Doing experience with people who care that I’m learning,” she said. “This is one of the most in-depth Learn by Doing experiences I’ll ever do.”

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