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The other wine degree

Times Staff Writer

Fifty-FOUR numbered bottles of Syrah were arrayed in a long line on tables in a classroom at Cal State Fresno, and 16 students poured, sniffed and sipped their way through them. Each bottle represented a different barrel or stainless-steel tank in which the wine had been aging since the students vinified it last fall. Now the fledgling winemakers had a decision to make.

Could the Syrah stand on its own? Should it be blended with some Petite Sirah for depth and smoothness? If so, would the optimum blend be 20% Petite Sirah? Or 10%? Or 3%?

Elsewhere on campus, students might be conjugating Spanish verbs or pondering the laws of thermodynamics, but here in Kenneth Fugelsang’s cellar practices enology class, a lot more was at stake than a grade on a report card. Choosing the wrong blend could result in a wine that failed to sell well, and that would mean a direct financial loss to the university.

Although it lives in the shadow of the renowned wine education program at UC Davis, Cal State Fresno’s is the only one of its kind in the United States, the only university enology program with its own commercial winery. The wine Fugelsang’s class toiled over will end up on the shelves of the local Whole Foods supermarket and a score of other retail stores in the Fresno area, competing with products of professional wineries from around the world. “We force the students to make decisions that senior winemakers make out in the industry,” says winery production manager Kevin Connor.

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The nearly $10-million winery, which is operated primarily by students, will produce 17,000 cases this year (students of any age may work in the facility, but only those 21 and older may participate in activities or classes that involve tasting wine). The winery’s commercial nature “changes the students’ perspectives entirely,” says Robert Wample, chairman of the school’s department of viticulture and enology. “They have to know not only how to make the wine but how to do it so they can sell the stuff and stay in business. Having that expectation drives home the reality of things.”

The students and their wines appear to be living up to expectation. A trophy case in the enology department exhibits scores of gold, silver and bronze medals the winery has won at the California State Fair, Los Angeles and Orange counties’ fairs and other commercial wine competitions since opening for business in 1997. The wines, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier and Barbera, typically bear labels featuring a drawing of the sun and the words “Fresno State.” The label of the winery’s Tailgate Red, a $6 table wine, depicts a snarling cartoon bulldog, the university’s mascot.

Cal State Fresno is the other California educational institution besides UC Davis that grants bachelors (and graduate) degrees in enology. At Davis, whose small and antiquated winemaking facilities are not bonded, student wines are made for instructional purposes and then, by law, dumped down the drain. UC Davis is trying to raise money, as much as $18 million, for a commercial winery of its own in the new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, scheduled for completion in 2006.

As part of the California State University system, Fresno’s program emphasizes undergraduate education over research and graduate education. Its Department of Enology and Viticulture has 130 undergraduates and eight graduate students. Of its five faculty members, only one spends most of his time on research.

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At UC Davis, by contrast, all but three of the department’s 16 faculty members are heavily engaged in research. Its 90 grad students (30 in enology and viticulture and the rest in related fields of microbiology, food science, plant biology, etc.) outnumber its 85 undergrads.

Cal State Fresno’s more practical approach has special appeal to some students, particularly the substantial percentage who have come to winemaking from other careers. Kara Dondero, a 29-year-old San Franciscan who worked in public relations and restaurant management, says she considered applying to UC Davis but ultimately chose Fresno State “because I was afraid I would graduate with a degree in enology and not know how to work in a winery, or how a winery has to survive.”

Gregory Paneitz, a 31-year-old Texan who worked as a research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, also considered, then ruled out, the more illustrious program. “There is a winery here, and at Davis there is not,” he says. “I’ve been doing research my whole adult life, and I didn’t want to do more of it.”

Returning a profit

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Thanks in large part to in-kind contributions from the wine industry, Cal State Fresno’s facility is a modern affair that includes temperature- and humidity-controlled barrel and case storage rooms, a bottling line and a spacious covered patio where grapes are crushed and pressed.

In the last three years, major improvements have been added, notably a 1,600-square-foot barrel house, financed by a $230,000 gift from Missouri-based World Cooperage, one of the world’s largest providers of wine barrels. The company has given the winery nearly 100 barrels made of American and French and other European oak, each worth between $250 and $600, and will donate additional barrels each year as the student winemakers need them.

The students make wines from grapes produced in the university’s 150-acre vineyard and by commercial growers elsewhere in the Central Valley, a region not known for making high-quality wine. Part of the school’s mission is to help raise the quality through more precise grape growing, sophisticated winemaking techniques and the introduction of new grape varieties suited to the valley’s summer heat.

Some of the school’s most honored wines are single-vineyard products from commercial growers whose grapes are grown in accordance with university-recommended techniques and whose names appear on the wines’ labels. The winery’s wines retail for $3.95 to $25 a bottle, with most selling in the $7-to-$10 range. The winery expects to sell almost half a million dollars’ worth during the current fiscal year, returning to the university’s agricultural foundation a profit of about $67,000 for that period.

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The money at stake adds gravitas to the students’ education. Wample points to an incident three years ago as an example. After filling a 1,000-gallon tank with newly crushed grapes, exhausted students left for the night without having inoculated the stuff with cultured wine yeasts to start fermentation. Their error might have allowed “wild” yeasts to get established and play havoc with the crushed grapes. Fortunately, a faculty member checked on the tank, determined the omission and corrected it.

For the students, it was a sobering lesson in the need for unflagging diligence. A ruined tankful would have negated 15,000 bottles of wine, which, at $10 apiece, would have meant a loss of $150,000.

Such realistic considerations figured in the choice made by the students in Enology 166. After trying numerous blends of Syrah and richer Petite Sirah, they decided not to blend in the latter. A blend, they reasoned, might sell for $10 or $12 a bottle, but the straight Petite Sirah could go for as much as $20 a bottle.

That left only the Syrah, some aged in barrels, most aged in stainless steel tanks. Combining it all would have resulted in a wine they could sell for $10 a bottle. But the wine from barrels was superior to that in the tanks.

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After tasting and re-tasting, the students decided to go with only the wine from barrels, reasoning, as one suggested, they could “call it a ‘barrel reserve’ ” and price it at $14.95 a bottle.

Moreover, removing that wine from the barrels would create room for some tank wine to be placed in wood for three or four months, creating, perhaps, more higher-priced “barrel reserve” for bottling this fall.

Satisfied with their decision, the students set about collecting bottles, cleaning tables and washing tasting glasses.

“Obviously,” observed Wample, “this was not your average laboratory class.”

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