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04.09.2008  
 

Grant Funds Illinois Viticulture/Enology Program

Online classes offer certificates and degrees to support Midwest industry

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 
Grant Funds Illinois Viticulture/Enology Program
 
Rachel Cristaudo, (left) did many jobs at Pomona Winery, including washing strawberries for fruit wine, before joining Rend Lake College as project coordinator for its new VESTA online viticulture and enology program.
 
Ina, Ill. -- A half-million dollar grant funded by the National Science Foundation is helping to establish viticulture and enology programs at Rend Lake College in Southern Illinois. Rachel Cristaudo, former winery manager and administrative assistant for the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, has been appointed project coordinator. Cristaudo will be working with Steve Holman, a professor of biology who is the program's senior personnel at the school. The $500,000 grant began last year, when Holman began getting state approvals for the new associate degrees. Certificates in the two specialties will require about 30 credit hours each, with no general education or prerequisite classes.

These are especially appealing, Holman told Wines & Vines, to nontraditional students: retirees, entrepreneurial types and those who have some exposure to the wine industry but need practical education prior to leaping into planting vineyards or opening a winery of their own.

Rend Lake is the most recent Midwestern community college to sign on with the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) Regional Center of Excellence, which offers certifications and associate of applied science degrees in grapegrowing and winemaking through online courses. VESTA is headquartered at Missouri State University in Springfield. Northeast Iowa Community College, with campuses in Calmar and Peosta; and Redlands Community College in El Reno, Okla., are also part of the VESTA program, which was inaugurated four years ago. During that period, the participating colleges have provided online education for some 275 students in almost 30 states, according to Holman. Vesta issues certificates at Missouri State, while degrees are awarded through the participating schools.

Although the courses are taught online, Holman already has lined up practicum sites at nearby vineyards and wineries, to provide hands-on experience throughout the year. "The practicums are built into the online courses," Holman said. "They've been very successful."

Cristaudo started her new job April 1, and her first and most important duty is recruitment of students for the new program. With a master's degree in English as a second language, which she has taught; three years of working in various capacities including manager at Pomona Winery in nearby Pomona, Ill., and her acquaintance with Southern Illinois growers and winemakers along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, she felt the VESTA position would be a great fit, utilizing both her educational and winery experience.

She and Holman are especially excited about the prospect of establishing a dual-credit program allowing local high school students to earn certificates in grapegrowing--"not winemaking," Holman emphasized. "Nor will they be tasting any wine."

"Some other things we want to work on are establishing advisory committees from within the grape and wine industry," Cristaudo said. "We want them to tell us what kind of courses they want to see us offer and what kind of education potential employees need. We want to identify partner wineries and vineyards throughout the state for field work and internships." Although VESTA courses are taught online, Cristaudo pointed out that they are tailored to the seasonal activities of the industry.

Cristaudo believes that offering these programs through community colleges provides an advantage, even for online learners. "In a smaller setting, you can have more one-on-one contact."

Holman said that plans are under way to expand the VESTA program to as many as a dozen other neighboring states. Funding for the Rend Lake grant will expire in about three years, by which time, Cristaudo said, the college hopes to have enrolled around 200 students in the program.

As in other U.S. winegrowing regions, skilled labor is in increasing demand, and it's harder to come by. In the Midwest, programs like this can help people from traditional local agriculture backgrounds transition to a fast-growing and potentially more profitable agricultural endeavor--and encourage those from more urban settings to see the benefits and learn the realities of growing grapes and making wine.

Credits earned in the VESTA program can be transferred to four-year institutions. "We want to be able to help our students to find jobs," Cristaudo concluded.

To learn more about Rend Lake College, visit rlc.edu. For a complete list of courses, schedules, applications and job vacancies, visit vesta-usa.org.
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