Q&A: Viticulture & Enology Department Founding Chair Jean Dodson Peterson

A woman in a black vest and gray shirt stands in a vineyard with blue sky in the background.
Jean Dodson Peterson pictured in a vineyard at WSU Tri-Cities.

Jean Dodson Peterson joined Washington State University this fall as founding chair of the newly established Department of Viticulture and Enology. Based in the Tri-Cities at the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center, Dodson Peterson comes to WSU from California Polytechnic State University, where she was an associate professor of viticulture.

Dodson Peterson describes her goals for the V&E department, including combatting climate change’s effect on grapes and curriculum redesign:

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What drew you to the field of wine science?

I originally thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but quickly realized that was not going to make me a happy person. While at University of California, Davis, I stumbled into an “Introduction to Winemaking” class and fell in love with it.

I changed my major to viticulture and enology and initially planned to become a winemaker. While I was a teaching assistant for courses on viticulture practices, I realized I found the viticulture aspect of the major most interesting.

I also realized that I love education and could potentially pair it with viticulture. I found myself getting excited about the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Different techniques can change classroom environments and increase learning and participation while creating a meaningful sense of community for students.

What makes WSU’s wine program so special?

The faculty here are truly a key bit of the magic behind what makes WSU V&E unique. I grew up studying the research that Jim Harbertson, Markus Keller, and Michelle Moyer have done. Their efforts to advance the industry have been pivotal in my own educational journey. To have the opportunity to work closely with people who think about science, industry empowerment, and education in a way I respect is exciting.

What are some of your immediate goals for the WSU V&E department?

Our primary effort is centered around curriculum redesign and enriching the student experience. We must build a curriculum that clearly maps course learning objectives to department learning objectives and ultimately to the vision and mission of WSU. We are also focusing on enhancing and expanding our vineyard teaching and research blocks as well as working towards upgrading some of our winery technology.

Five years from now, how will the department function within the greater wine industry?

We want to be a leader in research, Extension, and education. We want to accomplish this by maintaining and reinvesting in our unique relationship with the Washington wine and grape industry. We believe in bringing our partners to the table as we explore changes and continually strive to improve.

Along these lines, we want to make sure our students are getting internships and positions that help them and the industry grow and evolve.

What’s your vision for V&E students?

We need to be thoughtful about our efforts to educate potential future students, especially those coming out of high school or those looking to transfer from a partner community college to WSU.

If we can do a better job engaging prospective students, my hope is that we can continue to be a very diverse, inclusive group in the V&E department and grow our numbers.

With the pandemic, we had some students that for one reason or another struggled to persist through to degree completion. We need to address this and strategize how to prevent similar trends in the future. One of the major initiatives we are pushing is a solicitation for more scholarships. We want to show students that we are here to support them not just in the classroom, but as people.

How will you reach out to diverse communities?

WSU has some impressive initiatives around creating stronger connections with community colleges and high school agriculture classes. It is on us to help open the door and continue to engage those students.

This degree allows for the unique combination of science and creativity in the workplace. We need to have more conversations about the opportunities that exist in viticulture and enology with prospective students.

How does research factor into your new role?

Although my appointment is administratively focused, I have every intention to continue engaging in scholarly activities as time allows. I hope to create strategic partnerships with fellow faculty such that the relationship between rootstock-scion interactions can continue to be explored here in Washington.

How will you address climate change-related challenges?

Climate change is a dynamic topic. I believe in supporting the work of our Extension and research faculty so they can continue to pursue related research endeavors. A part of that work is taking research findings to the industry. Whether it is new guidance on plant material selection, appropriate water use, or shifting vineyard practices, we must continually assess the impacts of climate-related challenges in viticulture and enology and modify our advice accordingly. We must be proactive in growing grapes of high quality with reasonably little water. This involves education, conversations, and trials across the state.

Is there anything about you that others would find surprising or unique?

I’m a voracious reader. I worked as a substitute librarian for my town while I was in high school. I almost decided to pursue a degree in library science. Any chance I have, you will find me hiding out, trying to read a chapter without interruption!

How are you liking the Tri-Cities so far?

My family and I are loving the Tri-Cities. We have found the community and especially our neighbors to be welcoming and kind. I’m also looking forward to having seasons and exploring more of the area hiking paths.