By Laura Skillman
UK College of Agriculture
LEXINGTON, Ky., (June 17, 2013) – As interest in vineyards and wineries in the state has seen a resurgence in recent years, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has assisted producers in the re-establishment of these enterprises. This fall, the college will begin assisting on another level – by offering courses that will enhance career opportunities for students interested in entering the industry.
UK specialists have always helped grape growers improve profitability and grape and wine quality. They work with growers to plant vineyard varieties, teach pruning techniques and answer production questions. They also help wineries in their quests to make award-winning wines. With vineyard size and overall industry impact increasing throughout the state, the industry vitally needs professionals trained in this field. The college’s new courses will respond to that need.
These courses will serve students in such diverse areas as horticulture, plant and soil science, agricultural economics and hospitality management. The extensive family farm experience of faculty and specialists will provide students the opportunity to develop skills they can use in both the production and the hospitality industries, whether that is in local wineries or international companies.
The first offering will be an experiential education class in wine appreciation for students 21 and older.
“As teachers, we look for ideas that students find interesting and relevant and that provide something they can build on as they go through the rest of their lives,” said Plant and Soil Sciences Professor Mike Barrett, who will teach the course. “This course fits into the surge in wine interest I see happening in Kentucky and, really, the entire country.”
Wineries are a part of agritourism, which is an important aspect of the agriculture landscape in Kentucky. Nearly all wineries in Kentucky use a tasting room, and Barrett sees his course providing knowledgeable staff to run them. The wine appreciation course lecture topics will include wine history, viticulture, winemaking and an overview of the major wine producing areas of the world. Exercises will develop the student’s nose and palate. A field trip is planned to a local vineyard and winery, so students can see the process from grape to wine. They will also have a chance to discuss winemaking with the winemaker.
Beginning in spring 2014, two additional undergraduate horticulture courses will be taught that will focus on technical aspects of viticulture, the science and production of grapes, and enology, the science of wine and winemaking. An introduction to viticulture will include topics such as basic grapevine physiology and anatomy, vineyard design and establishment, important pathogens of grapevines and vineyard economics. The following fall’s wine production course will focus on chemical analysis of wine and grape must, which is the newly pressed juice and skins, production practices for various wine styles, winery equipment and winery economics. Students will get hands-on experience at the college’s Horticulture Research Farm, which has five acres of grapes. Both courses will be taught by Jeff Wheeler in the Department of Horticulture.
Contrary to what some might think, the American wine industry did not begin in California; it began in Kentucky. In 1799, Swiss vinedresser James Dufour began work on a vineyard located on the Kentucky River in Jessamine County. By the late 1800s, the state was the third largest grape and wine producer in the United States. But Prohibition stopped the industry, and many growers turned to tobacco production.
Fast forward many decades, and the state faced less tobacco production and sought alternatives. One of those alternatives was really a return to its roots, and vineyards began sprouting up again across Kentucky.
As the state transitioned from a tobacco-based economy to a more diverse one, the College of Agriculture aided farmers in their efforts to improve their existing operations and develop new ones. Kentucky’s vineyards have grown substantially, growing from fewer than 70 acres of grapevines in 1999 to nearly 540 acres and more than 150 grape producers today, according to Patsy Wilson, viticulture extension specialist. Likewise, wineries have seen rapid growth, from only five registered wineries a decade ago to 68 today.
University programs designed to prepare students for careers in the wine industry have historically been located in the western United States including select colleges and universities located in California, Washington and Oregon. Today there are more than 25 university programs designed to support established U.S. wine industries, including universities located in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Colorado. The University of Kentucky will be added to this list starting this fall.