WSU V&E students tour California winemaking facilities

A group stands by wine barrels and wine tanks, holding glasses of wine.
Students in WSU’s winery operations and equipment class spent their spring break touring cooperages, a cork manufacturer, wineries, and much more.

NAPA, Calif. – When students in Washington State University’s winery operations and equipment class left the WSU Tri-Cities campus for spring break, not all headed home. Several students traveled to California as part of an immersive class trip exposing them to different winemaking perspectives.

The excursion to Napa and Sonoma Counties and surrounding areas was led by Tom Collins, assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Viticulture and Enology (V&E). Department Chair Jean Dodson Peterson also joined the group for a few days.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would highly recommend it,” said Jesse Stevens, who will graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in V&E. “Dr. Collins did a wonderful job of helping us see some amazing spots.”

Annette Loring, who also expects to graduate in May 2023 with a V&E bachelor’s degree, agrees.

“This trip was a fantastic experience, and I’m so glad I attended,” she said. “I really enjoyed spending time with my classmates and seeing the size and scope of the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma Counties.”

A group of students walks next to rows of wine barrels in an underground cavelike room.

The trip included visits to cooperages, where wine barrels are manufactured; a lab that tests wine for spoilage and smoke exposure; a cork manufacturer; and concrete and steel tank production facilities. The group also toured several high-end wineries of various sizes; a manufacturer of pumps and other winemaking equipment; and a provider of toasted oak products that can be used in place of barrels to produce oak flavors in wines.

“This is the hands-on, experiential companion to the lecture course, and it’s very popular with students,” Collins said.  “It’s an opportunity for them to witness firsthand how the equipment and operations discussed in class work together to facilitate winemaking. They also observe how winemaking styles influence equipment and winery design choices.”

One evening was spent hosting WSU V&E alumni who work in California’s wine industry, an experience Collins hopes will inspire current students to realize what’s possible after graduation.

At the beginning of the semester, students offer input on which wineries they want to tour. After the trip, Collins again asks for feedback, ensuring the visits align with both student interests and class learning objectives.

“The itinerary changes each time the course is held,” Collins said. “In prior years we’ve visited California’s Central Valley. Our visits vary, based on student feedback and availability at the places we visit.”

Stevens’ favorite part of the experience was the chance to interact with winemakers and coopers. He was surprised to learn how much goes on behind the scenes.

“There’s a massive cork-making industry,” he said. “That’s something I hadn’t thought about before. Families have been making them for generations.”

Loring appreciated seeing the various roles that contribute to the wine industry.

A group of students stands next to wine tanks with wine glasses in hand.

“From cork suppliers to tank manufacturers to barrel producers, it’s important for students to see the different jobs adjacent to winemaking and grape growing,” she said. “The education we receive at WSU provides a strong foundation to go a number of ways in our career paths.”

The trip reinforces topics covered during Collins’ lectures.

“I want students to come away with the extra understanding that comes from having a piece of equipment in front of them,” he said. “I also hope they’re seeing other approaches to solving operational questions by looking at how different teams are handling similar winemaking challenges.”

The journey also strengthens the connection between WSU’s V&E department and the California winemaking industry and its suppliers.

Both Stevens and Loring noted takeaways from the experience that they’ll likely carry into their future work, including winemaking technology automation and California’s use of root stocks to help manage pressure from pests like grape phylloxera, which is now appearing in Washington. Using California’s commitment to sustainability as a guideline will also be beneficial as climate change-induced wildfires become more and more common in Washington. 

“It was an invaluable experience,” Stevens said. “It’s not every day that you meet people at that level in the industry. It was a great chance to network and apply what I learned in class. I may not get the same level of exposure to people or places again.”

Travel expenses for this trip were made possible in part by donated funds. Help students attend future trips by donating to the Viticulture & Enology Experiential Learning Fund.