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“Virtual Vineyard” Helps Educate Future Vintners

PULLMAN, Wash. — Kathryn House wants to wire the world of wine for Washington State University students studying one of the state’s fastest growing agricultural industries.

A WSU alumna pursuing her master’s degree in horticulture, House is creating an online teaching laboratory that allows enology and viticulture students to put what they learn in the classroom to work in a virtual vineyard. While the program can’t replace the experience garnered by actually working at a winery or vineyard, House said it does help students understand the connections between the individual areas of study their degrees entail.

“The laboratory allows students to see the big picture and practice making real-life decisions that impact vineyard and winery management,” House said. “Working in a vineyard online enhances any internship a student has in the real world, because he or she knows the ‘why’ behind specific decisions.”

Kathleen Willemsen, House’s major professor at WSU, agrees. She is hoping to implement the technology in her Advanced Viticulture class next spring.

“Having hands-on research projects links lecture materials with real- life applications of key concepts,” said Willemsen, associate professor of horticulture and extension horticulturist.

House, who earned her undergraduate degrees in zoology and Spanish at WSU, polled Washington wineries and growers before developing the online laboratory about what skills the industry wants in its newest employees. “I wanted to make sure the laboratory addresses the needs of both students and the industry as much as possible,” she said. And while the producers outlined specific skills they are seeking, they also said they want employees who have had hands-on experience, who are good communicators and who are problem solvers — all three traits fostered by the virtual vineyard, House said.

Working in teams, students participating in the virtual vineyard will decide where they want to locate their vineyard, what kind of tests are needed to determine things such as soil quality and moisture holding capacity, what grape varieties will be planted where, pest management methods, trellising systems and just about every other aspect of the industry. In addition, House said, each team will receive a virtual budget to manage. At the end of the project, each team will make a presentation about its decisions and results.

“The industry has been very receptive and responsive,” House said.”They are really interested in making sure students are well prepared to go to work after they graduate. Students may travel to California, Australia, all over the world to work, but we’re focused on filling the needs of the wine industry in our state.”

House, who grew up in the wine country of California, is completing an internship herself for the next six months at Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla. Her goal is to own a small to medium sized winery, so her internship entails learning about every facet of the winemaking process from vineyard management to cellar work. While her major is in horticulture, she said, “To make great wine, you’ve got to have wonderful grapes and you need to understand what’s going on with those grapes.” She will be working directly with grower Norm McKibben and winemaker Jean Francois Pellet.

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