Wine and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo offers the largest Wine and Viticulture program in the U.S. and is located right in the heart of one of the largest winegrowing regions in the U.S. Under the Wine and Viticulture major, students can concentrate in Viticulture (winegrape production), Enology (the science of winemaking) or Wine Business (financial management of the wine industry).

Cal Poly also produces its own wine from its 14-acre state-of-the-art commercial vineyard. All of the winemakers are graduates of the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture program. The wine is sold online and in the downtown branch of the El Corral Bookstore and, according to the Wine and Viticulture program’s website, has been featured in several nearby wine festivals.

So, what does a wine and viticulture major look like? Where do they come from and what do they think about? I sat down with Ashley McAlister from Modesto, CA, a third-year Wine and Viticulture major at Cal Poly, to answer exactly that.

To answer our first question, I took a picture of Ashley to share with you guys. She’s pretty and blonde with a genuine smile and plenty of school spirit. As I talked with her I learned that she is sweet, smart, and down-to-earth.

What made you want to major in wine and viticulture?

When I was little my dad would talk to me about wine and my parents would go wine tasting. [They] would take me and my sister along and we would always get free tours and grape juice to taste. Then when I got my job at Gallo [when I was 18] that solidified it. Plus it’s recession proof—people are going to drink wine no matter what.

What kinds of classes do you have to take for a Wine and Viticulture major? 

It depends on what concentration you declare, but all Wine and Viticulture majors take the basics that tell you the history of wine, what regions are known for what and so on and so forth. Each concentration learns a little about the others so you are rounded. Viticulture majors take more biology and plant science classes, Enology take more chemistry classes as well as wine making courses, and Wine Business take more business courses.

Do you have a minor? Why did you choose it/them?

I’m trying to decide between Business and Spanish. Most of the world is speaking Spanish, so it’s really good for communication whether I’m in the office or out in the fields. When I was working at Gallo I was always the only white person working out in the fields and everyone around me was speaking Spanish and I had no idea what they were talking about. Business because it’s always good to have some type of business background, especially in the wine industry.

What is your favorite kind of wine? Brand and type.

My favorite brand would have to be Cakebread—Super good. Super expensive. My favorite type would definitely be a cabernet sauvignon. Although I recently found a favorite white that is the only white I can drink, Mirassau Risling.

You mentioned a job at Gallo, tell me more about that.

E&J Gallo is the largest producing winery in the world. They’re rated number one mainly because they produce so much. They are one of the first major wineries to be made in California and they were kind of the ones who put California on the map, even though at the time they were known for making really crappy wine. Now they’ve grown into one of the largest wineries in the nation, if not the world. We for sure have the largest tank in the nation. I started [working there] in May of 2010 and I ended in September of 2011.

Do you think you’ll end up working with Gallo again?

Probably. They’ve offered to help me do my senior project.

Would you want to do an internship with them?

Definitely. Doing my senior project would involve an internship with them; I would work Monday through Thursday and Friday would be my senior project day.

Do you know what you want to do for your senior project?

No idea. Haven’t even thought about it. I don’t even know what a senior project entails. They helped someone else with their senior project and it was just a big old research project—I’m really hoping mine doesn’t have to be a big research project. There’s a reason I didn’t go to Davis.

Are you joining the Cal Poly Vines to Wines club? Are you planning to be really involved with it?

Yes I am, for the sake of placing it on my resume and for the job opportunities it could present.

Do you have a favorite winery that you’ve visited? Is there one you really want to visit when you turn 21?

I haven’t been able to visit very many since I’m not 21 yet, and I can’t remember any of the ones I visited when I was little. Cakebread, definitely. I really want to go through Paso Robles and check out the wineries there. Napa is kind of the heartland of California wine so definitely Napa too.

How did you learn about wine tasting?

We were trained to taste at Gallo. We tasted different fruits at different stages of ripeness—underripe, ripe, and overripe or bruised. We tasted them so we could recognize them in the wine. Once you take this class and you taste a lot of wine, you start to get past the wine taste and be able to recognize other flavors in it. We had to taste and smell so many things; we even had grass and bell peppers because you have to know all the different aromas. You sit there and the entire class is basically, “Okay, you have a blueberry. What does it taste like?” You don’t say “well, it tastes like blueberry” because it doesn’t just taste like blueberry. It tastes like licorice and anything else you can taste [under the blueberry flavor]. And [I learned that] you can press a merlot grape and press a bell pepper and you can’t tell the difference between the juices. It’s a long day of smelling and tasting—by the end of the day your senses are just totally shot.

Would you recommend the wine viticulture program for someone who maybe doesn’t have a strong background in wine?

I definitely suggest taking a couple classes or looking for an entry-level job to figure out if you really like working in wine. We’ve had some interns come in with a dairy science background who just loved it and immediately switched their major to wine and viticulture. Then we’ve also had some wine and viticulture majors who loved their classes and then started working in the industry and they just didn’t like it. So you definitely want an idea of what it entails before you commit to such a restrictive major.

Are there any wine-related books you would recommend?

The Wine Encyclopedia is suggested for my WVIT 102 class. It outlines every piece and every part you could ever want to know about wine and viticulture in this book. If you’re interested in different wine regions around the world and how they got to be that way, you go to that chapter. If you want to know all the different wine varietals or grape varieties, you go to that chapter. There are over 700 different wine varietals in the world and we aren’t sure how many grape varieties there are. She also suggested the Wine Atlas, which is similar, and they’re both books you want to get the newest edition of because they’re constantly adding new things. Like right now we’re trying to see if we can produce a quality grape that can also produce a good amount of tonnage with a different growing system. Two of the ones we’ve tried are better than what we have standard, it’s just a matter of getting farmers to switch over. It takes $300,000 to plant a 15 acre plot and some of these farmers have like 70 acres.

Do you have a dream job in the wine industry?

My dream job would probably be owning my own tasting room and having a banquet hall so that I would be able to host conferences, weddings, everything like that. Something where I own something in the industry is what I really want to do. My entire family wants to be in on it. My mom is like “I’ll do the tasting!” and my dad is like “I’ll do the security!” I’m like, “Dad, you’re going to be like 80.” My aunt is a graphic designer so of course she wants in on it too.

As I learn more about wine, would you be willing to sit and talk with me again once I can understand more of what you’re talking about?

Yeah sure!

One Response to “Wine and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo”
  1. garwall101 says:

    Great interview Hannah! I drank a glass of Gallo Pinot Noir the other day (and just happened to pour one tonight just for this occasion) and I’m glad I got to learn a little more about the Gallo Winery. I just got the chance to read this after a few days since you sent me the link, and I’m glad it got a chance to “breath”. I got to read some of your work (which is great by the way), I learned a thing or two and it made me laugh more than a few times. I look forward to more 😀

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