Adrienne Ferrara: the woman behind the wine (or, one of them, anyway)

So, now we know Cal Poly offers the largest Wine and Viticulture program in the country. We also know that Cal Poly produces its own brand of wine. But, let’s be honest, how much else do we actually know about these two things?

“You can study wine your whole life and never know everything. That’s kind of the fun of it,” said Adrienne Ferrara, an instructor in Cal Poly’s Wine and Viticulture program, brand manager for Cal Poly wine, faculty adviser for the Cal Poly Wine Festival and faculty support for the Vines to Wines club.

Adrienne Ferrara is originally from Windsor, CA, a small town located in Sonoma County (another of California’s major wine regions). She came to San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly and she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a concentration in marketing in 2003. She also received her Master’s of Business Administration from Cal Poly.

“Like any young person coming out of high school, exposure to the campus and exposure to the culture [brought me] here. My older cousin graduated from here in Agribusiness so I got a chance to come down here [before I chose Cal Poly].”

Although Ferrara is from one of California’s most well-known wine regions, her interest in wine did not fully take flight until she was a student at Cal Poly.

“I got into wine during undergrad. I did an internship at Wild Horse and stayed on with Wild Horse until grad. school and then after grad. school through several purchases. I worked when it was privately held and through the corporate holding.”

After graduating from Cal Poly Ferrara spent a number of years with Wild Horse and working with a few other wineries.

“I was in sales and marketing for wine branding so I’m trained in brand management. . . I worked on the distributor side for smaller wineries; I’ve done a little bit of everything. This is my tenth harvest in the wine business.”

About a year and a half ago, she was approached as a potential candidate for a different position.

“[Cal Poly] approached me saying there was a position open. Originally I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into teaching but we started talking about the potential for this program being in the industry’s backyard. It’s pretty fun getting to work with everyone in the industry and with the next generation of winemakers. It’s really exciting to be mobilized around wine and viticulture in this area so it seemed like an exciting proposition.”

Upon accepting the offer from Cal Poly, Ferrara simultaneously became an instructor in the Wine and Viticulture program and the brand manager for Cal Poly wine. She loves teaching now, but the offer of the brand manager position did have some influence on her original decision.

“[T]eaching was new to me and brand management was what I was used to so it made me more comfortable knowing I could be in both worlds.”

Ferrara has a lot of wine industry experience under her belt and managing the Cal Poly wine brand has, thus far, been another unique one to add to her list.

“The Cal Poly wine project is interesting in the sense that you’re marketing wine like you’re marketing any other brand. It’s a brand that’s got so much loyalty and so much support around it that it’s kind of fun to go in and present a product and, nine times out of 10, you get a ‘yes,’; in the real world, nine times out of 10, you get a ‘no.’ Normally you’re pushing a brand, this one definitely has more of a pull. My husband and I are both Cal Poly graduates so it’s fun to see what local businesses support the brand like Embassy Suites and Spencer’s Fresh Markets. It makes my job as the brand manager easy because the brand is already so strong.”

In the time she’s spent teaching at Cal Poly, Ferrara has noticed that what students seem to love the most is the hands-on learning style offered by this program (and most of the programs at Cal Poly). Last year, the program held a seminar in Paso Robles for Cal Poly students that involved a Skype session with video blogger Gary Vaynerchuk, a best-selling author and “self-trained wine and social media expert,” according to his website.

“Whether it’s Wine Business students interacting with people coming and tasting wine or Enology students blending and adding yeast to a brand new fermentation or people in the vineyard tucking vines, it seems like the ‘learn by doing’ in this particular program is pretty exciting for everyone. We’re really fortunate in the sense that we can participate in all the steps of the wine industry within this program.”

Although Cal Poly’s Wine and Viticulture program is impressive, it is not without a couple of small flaws—if you could call them flaws at all.

“[T]o come in as an 18 year old and know you want to be in the wine business for the rest of your life can be kind of daunting, especially since you can’t take any of the sensory courses until you’re 21. The legality. . . is probably the most difficult obstacle embedded in the major. [Also] people get excited about doing everything: viticulture, enology, wine business. They’re all nice to know but to get out in four years or five years you really have to select one concentration.” Wait. The second biggest obstacle is that people get TOO excited about their major?

As a teacher, Ferrara says that her favorite part so far is seeing students get excited about doing things she’s done so many times. “It reinvigorates my excitement about things [to] go with students and they’re so excited to be there and interact with consumers; it puts a fresh perspective on things.”

So, what is Mrs. Ferrara’s favorite wine, you ask? Good question. The answer: she doesn’t have one.

She does enjoy a few specific white wines, such as:

  • Albarino (from Spain)
  • Torrontes (from Argentina)
  • Vermentino (from Italy)

“I would say anything unique and food-friendly. . . If I go into a restaurant and there’s a wine I’ve never heard of or a variety I rarely see I’ll almost always pick that wine. . . A lot of times you run into a beer drinker and they like to drink the same beer all the time; wine drinkers inherently do not like to drink the same thing all the time, so you can’t really have a favorite. . . My favorite part about the industry is that there is so much competition, you can always try new things and you never get bored.”

Ferrara and her husband (also a Cal Poly graduate) make and manage their own brand of wine, titled Clesi. “It’s a full time project,” she noted. Clesi makes a lot of Italian varietals and this harvest is Mr. Ferrara’s eighth vintage.

For someone visiting San Luis Obispo, say, for a weekend, Ferrara said she “always recommend[s] eating and drinking wine. Get a driver; taste wines from as many regions as you can. Start in Arroyo Grande with sparkling wine, go into Edna Valley for pinot noir and interesting whites, head up to Paso for some bigger reds and eat along the way because there’s great food here too.”

“Having worked in other regions, this area is a very collaborative, friendly wine culture here,” said Ferrara at the end of our conversation. “If you’re crushing fruit and something goes wrong with your equipment, you call the winery down the street and they let you borrow what you need. I don’t know if it is like that anywhere else or if it isn’t but it seems like a really happy place to work and everybody wants to see the area succeed and everybody contributes. . . It’s a very collaborative and exciting time to be in this business.”

For us amateur wine-o’s (my words, not hers) Adrienne provided a short list of wine-related books and other valuable resources to help us learn!

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