Economic Development

New Source of Workers for Vineyards as Grapes Recover

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ASHTABULA, Ohio — Ashtabula County is starting to build a reputation for supplying skilled workers for the region’s growing wine industry.

In 2011, the Ashtabula campus of Kent State University began offering the first wine degrees in Ohio: an associate degree in oenology (winemaking) and associate of applied science in viticulture (grape growing).

“We are in a great location to have this program because we have wineries everywhere,” says academic adviser Danielle Weiser-Cline. “Having a supply of well-educated and trained winery and vineyard workers was definitely a need in the county since most wineries in the state are family-owned and don’t have a lot of time to devote to training people.”

To earn a degree in oenology or viticulture, students must complete 60 credit hours, 40 of which are wine- or grape-specific courses.

“Most students end up graduating in both degrees because if you already have taken the credits for one, it is really only four extra courses,” Weiser-Cline says

Eleven students have graduated from the program and there are usually 25 students per semester.

“One of the great things about this program is students can take their time and aren’t in a rush to graduate in two years,” she says. “Most of our students are second-career folk and come back to explore something different.”

KSU Ashtabula is a partner institution with the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance, or Vesta, and works with other schools on wine-focused programs such as Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

“The partnership helps the degree programs maintain the same curriculum,” Weiser-Cline says. She points out that the partnership gives students the opportunity to gain experience by working for vineyards outside of the state.

On top of the “very science-oriented” courses, as Weiser-Cline calls them, students benefit from mentors and hands-on fieldwork at 30 wineries.

“Every one of our students has been placed in the wine industry or related industry, such as wine packaging,” Weiser-Cline says.

The launch of the wine degrees grew out of a program that helps wineries in the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains regions.

“Dean [Susan] Stocker and I had many meetings that helped us navigate the wine regions so that the Vesta program could be established at KSU and accepted as their own,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association in Geneva.

The program has “helped to improve the quality of wine and do better wine and grow grapes” in the area, Winchell adds.

Ashtabula County is part of the “Pinot Belt Map,” a narrow strip in the Northern Hemisphere that stretches from Burgundy, France, to Oregon, Winchell says.

In early July, the Ohio Wine Producers Association held a Pinot Trail event where visitors could travel to 13 wineries to sip wines from the area.

“We’re trying to use this belt to let the world know that pinot noir and gris are thriving here,” she says, adding, “Wine is not just alcohol. It’s jobs.”

Statewide, the wine industry accounts for about 6,000 jobs, she says.

Ashtabula County lies in the Grand River Valley, an area suited to growing grapes, says Stephanie Siegel, executive director of the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Because of the warm air coming off Lake Erie, the composition of the soil and its elevation, the climate sustains 22 wineries in the county.

But the vintners don’t appreciate all the weather. Freezing temperatures in winter and frost in fall and spring often harm the vines. A few days in December 2013 were unseasonably warm, causing the vines to lose some of their cold-weather hardiness. A month later, a polar vortex caused the temperatures to drop 20 degrees below zero. This drastic change confused the vines and damaged the vinyards across Ashtabula County.

At Ferrante’s Winery & Ristorante in Geneva, owner Nick Ferrante says he had to replant a quarter of his vines, which only now have started to produce fruit again. A full crop from the replanted vines should come in next year, he says.

Tony Debevc of Debonné Vineyards, Madison, says he lost up to 15% of his vines – 10,000 plants.

“We didn’t lose entire vineyards, just low sections and weak vines,” he says. Since then, Debonné Vineyards has recovered 95% of its vines and looks for a full recovery in 2018, something he chalks up to experience.

“Our losses were less significant than some people who weren’t prepared for that loss,” he says, “but we’ve been growing grapes for 100 years.”

M Cellars in Geneva manages 70 acres of vines and produces 15,000 gallons of wine annually. The vinyard had just celebrate its first anniversary when the polar vortex hit.

“We lost all our fruit that winter, but after that we’ve been doing good,” owner Mike Meineke says. “We were able to save all the vines and had a one-year setback, but now we’re back to full production. In 2015, we had 80% of the crop and 2016 back to full.”

While the polar vortex hurt the vines, there were advantages for the Kent State students as they saw firsthand how vineyard owners worked to preserve their grape arbors in the harshest conditions, and should they lose a crop, how wineries go about finding grapes from other sources.

“It made students hyper-aware about what they’re learning in class and how to minimize any potential financial risk,” Weiser-Cline says. “The students got good experience seeing how different businesses were preparing their vineyards and they got lots of hands-on work for winter damage.”

Ferrante Winery is among those where Kent students have studied and been hired. The Ferrante family, which owns 65 acres of vines, has been making wine for 80 years, producing 125,000 gallons annually. Their winery mostly grows and processes its own grapes but also buys some from nearby vineyards and from the Finger Lakes region in New York.

Business has been good for the winery and vineyard this year, Ferrante says, and the weather clement. “Weather is the breaking point if it’s going to be a good vintage or just average,” Ferrante says.

Debonné Vineyards in Madison tends 175 acres of vines and produces more than 85,000 gallons of wine each year. Frost this spring cost the winery 20% of its vines, but Debevc predicts that warmer weather the rest of the year will strengthen the crop.

The winery and vineyard have hosted 10 students from KSU’s wine programs and has a graduate of the program working full-time.

“The program is a big help to the industry and provides a source to the labor that knows what they’re doing in making wine versus hiring someone off the street,” Debevc says. “It’s full of people who are passionate about their job.”

At the Ashtabula Agricultural Research Station in Kingsville, Andy Kirk, a research specialist, and others conduct programs on grape and wine production, including studies on the extent the vines recovered after the polar vortex.

Crown Gall is a disease that afflicts vines injured by extreme cold weather, Kirk says. He’s seen an increase since the polar vortex but is reluctant to say it was the cause.

He is also involved in a project to quantify the severity of losses caused by grapevine leafroll-associated virus, a widespread viral disease in the state that infects vines. Kirk has studied early detection and diagnostic methods as well as quantifying damages to grape quality and vine quality.

And he has begun projects to help growers understand and optimize the interaction between grape quality and environmental factors.

“The idea is to come up with credible info that our wineries can use to differentiate products on the market,” Kirk says.

The research station was established in 1985, a year after the Ohio Legislature funded the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center to set up a grape research farm. Ashtabula County commissioners contracted with Ohio State University to use 25 acres of farmland. Students from KSU Ashtabula’s wine degree programs make up half of the staff, working as interns.

“It’s a big struggle to find people who want to spend 40 hours a week doing hard agricultural work. So it’s been a great program,” Kirk says. “I came from this area and started a career in viticulture. I know a lot of people and I want to help them be successful.”

Pictured at top: Park Avenue Winery owner Lori Albrecht tends to vines at Ashtabula Agricultural Research Station as part of Kent State University at Ashtabula’s wine-based courses.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.