As Haley Acree sipped a clear, sugary liquid from a plastic cup in class at Pitman High School on Wednesday, turning over the flavors in her mouth, her face suddenly revealed an eager expression as she chirped, “Blueberry!”
Acree was one of 25 participants in an agricultural sensory lab facilitated by a flavor chemist of E. & J. Gallo Winery to help students identify various flavors and hone their tasting skills in the hopes of preparing their pallets for real wine tasting one day. The lab is just one of the many activities taking place in Krista Vannest’s viticulture class at Pitman High School.
Vannest’s course is the first of its kind in the area and is revolutionizing agricultural education and career options for local high school students. Usually reserved for universities where more students are of the legal drinking age of 21, courses in viticulture are a rarity on high school campuses and involve a certain amount of ingenuity to provide students authentic experience sans alcohol. Predicting that she would have to fight to have the course on campus, Vannest and former colleague and agriculture department chair Troy Gravatt were surprised to find that Pitman High School principal Rod Hollars and Turlock Unified School District superintendent Dr. Sonny DaMarto were excited to bring viticulture education to TUSD.
“We were stunned,” said Vannest, who conceived of the idea after visiting with a colleague who offers a viticulture class in St. Helena, an internationally renowned region in the Napa wine country. “I myself am inspired by wine and I thought that we are in the perfect area geographically where the kids who like this can take it in any direction. I really wanted to offer students something to connect with for a career.”
With concerns that students misperceive that agricultural is a one-dimensional industry that only involves farm labor, Vannest aims to demonstrate the versatility of the industry. The tasting lab presented by Gallo on Thursday is just one of the many events that the students have experienced, including a participatory farm risk management seminar by the United States Department of Food and Agriculture and other in-class simulated tastings. While student are learning about soils, parts of the vine and even how to manage a successful tasting room in the classroom, the class is significantly hands-on.
Derek Dias and Connor Risley are two high school seniors who helped establish Pitman’s very own vineyard last year where the students have learned to prune vines and administer a drip irrigation system among other things. Six of the Pitman High School students went on to take 7th place at the state pruning competition in their first year of competition and then provided pruning lessons to other students upon their return.
“We’ve got about 80 vines and 12 table grapes,” said Risley who helped maintain the vines watering system each day over the summer. “It’s a fun class and it feels good to get your hands dirty instead of just learning about this stuff in a classroom.”
The Pitman High School viticulture class has also picked grapes and pressed them as part of the primary fermentation process before sending their product to a winery in Lodi, where the local high school is considering implementing their own viticulture program. By the end of the year the wine from the Pitman High School vineyard will be bottled and presented to parents of students of the course, bearing its unique label with the names of the students in the course, at the annual end of year Future Farmers of America Banquet.
“It feels good to leave an imprint on Pitman,” said Dias.