Cal Poly's Ambitious Plans for Wine Education

Central Coast school has raised nearly $10 million for new teaching winery, classrooms and labs

by Andrew Adams
wine cal poly winery
Cal Poly plans to open its new winery (center) and Grange Hall (right) by 2020.
Napa, Calif.—A group of administrators and faculty from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) hit the road earlier this month, visiting Lodi as well as Napa and Sonoma to reconnect with wine industry alumni.

They are fundraising for the school’s planned Center for Wine and Viticulture, which will include a fully bonded winery as well as a separate building that will offer space for conferences as well as more classrooms and a sensory lab. Assisting the Cal Poly team was a vintner who’s contributed millions to wine education but actually isn’t a graduate of the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Standing in front of a small crowd of other winemakers, winery owners and wine company executives gathered in the cave of Pine Ridge Vineyards winery, Jerry Lohr, the founder and owner of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, pledged a matching donation of 50 cents for every dollar donated by those attending.

Lohr regularly espouses a passion for bolstering the educational opportunities for those entering the wine industry, and he’s put his money and name behind that passion, providing $2.5 million for the education and research winery at the University of California, Davis. Lohr is also a significant booster of his alma mater, South Dakota State University, which is now home to the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering.

“This is going to elevate Cal Poly even above where it’s been,” Lohr said. About six years ago, he made an initial pledge of $1 million, and after he saw fundraising momentum slow he helped revitalize it with some of the new leadership of Cal Poly’s program.

The fundraising goal is $15 million, and after the school announced it had raised more than $7 million in early April, Lohr told Wines & Vines that recent commitments had pushed that total past $8 million.

Plans call for a nearly 30,000-square-foot Center for Wine and Viticulture that will include a nearly 16,000-square-foot and fully bonded working and teaching winery as well as teaching and research labs for wine sensory and chemistry analysis and space for industry conferences and events. Long-range plans include a third building housing a brewery to round out the center for fermentation studies, but the current focus is on the winery and what is being called “Grange Hall.”

School officials envision a winery with the equipment and production capacity to be a self-supporting commercial venture with space to offer recent graduates a place to crush and ferment grapes for their own nascent brands. The new center is expected to open in 2020, and Lohr said the school has retained the services of JW Design & Construction in Paso Robles. The firm completed the new Riboli Family Winery and has built several other facilities in the Central Coast.

In addition to the fundraising and new wine center, Cal Poly’s program also has been infused with new leadership after several staff retirements. The Wine and Viticulture program only became a department in 2013, and it hired its first tenure-track professor, Dr. Jean Dodson Peterson, a year later.

Dr. Benoit Lecat became the department head in 2015. Lecat came to Cal Poly from the Burgundy School of Wine and Spirits Business in Dijon, France. A native of Belgium, Lecat said he’d like to further integrate the school into the international wine industry through exchange programs and regular student trips. Lecat also is working on staff recruitment and said he was proud to end 18 months of recruitment with the successful hiring of Dr. Frederico Casassa, who has won two best paper honors from ASEV for his winemaking research with a focus on phenolics.

Lecat said future students will be able to take advantage of 14 acres of vineyards, which are in the process of being replanted. About 10 of these acres will be used for the commercial winemaking program, while others will be used to teach students how to recognize and work with a number of varieties, and a third portion will be rotated every four years. Lecat said each freshman class will plant a row of vines and then work to develop the plants through their four years of school before the vines are replanted to make room for another group of first-year students. “When you arrive your first year, you plant a row, and then you see the evolution of the vines,” he said.

Dr. Andrew Thulin became dean of the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences in 2014 after serving as interim dean for nearly a year. Thulin said the college has hired 35 new faculty members and eight new department heads for nine departments. Thulin said the school received nearly 60,000 applications for about 5,000 spots at the school. “I wish we could grow,” Thulin said. “We’re trying to figure it out.”

Part of that growth also involves securing winemaking equipment for the winery. For his part, Lohr has purchased eight stainless steel fermentation tanks and pressed his fellow vintners to chip in either with monetary donations or winemaking tools. Naming opportunities remain, from the entire complex down to a single fermentation tank.

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