Although Pitman High School viticulture students are not of drinking age yet, they already know how to make a good wine.
Just ask the nearly 50 judges who sampled the Pitman students' Shiraz during the 2015 Bottle Shock Open Home Winemaking Competition in July and deemed the wine as the Best of Show Red.
“Winning that title was a great,” said senior Erin Hildebrand. “It showed that our hard work really paid off.”
Students entered the Shiraz and a Bordeaux Red Varietal Blend into the amateur wine judging competition, which drew in over 350 wines nationwide.
The Shiraz not only won Best of Show Red, but Best of Class and Best First Time Winemaker, which was an award that was given to the highest scoring winemaker who has never entered any winemaking competition.
Additionally, the Shiraz won a gold medal and the Bordeaux Red Varietal Blend won a silver medal.
“To win was just absolutely amazing,” said agriculture teacher Krista Vannest. “To know that all of those people kept picking our wine—it was mind-blowing.”
Vannest said that she originally decided to submit her students’ wine after the past president of Lodi Amateur Vintners Association and mentor John Bischoff approached her about the second annual home winemaking competition.
“This competition was a great opportunity for students to get feedback and find ways to improve in order to become better winemakers. That’s all I wanted,” said Vannest. “The winning was just a bonus.”
Students worked diligently since last September to produce the award winning wine, including purchasing and picking grapes at Bischoff’s winery, Near Sierra Vineyards in Acampo.
“He gave us grapes and we crush them at his house, which was fun because we really worked together,” said senior Abbie Shamoon.
After the grapes were crushed into a liquefied mixture, the vintners in training transported the juice back to the high school’s campus, where it was kept in fermentation bins. At regular intervals, students had to check acid, yeast and sugar levels.
“It was challenging because we had to make sure all the levels were correct and that it was the right temperature,” said Hildebrand.
Once the grape juice turned into alcohol, it could no longer be held on campus. Students returned the product to Bischoff’s winery, where he barreled it for them and held it for approximately three months to complete maturation.
Students retrieved the wine from the Bischoff in May and bottled it, marking the finished product with labels they designed themselves.
Vannest regarded the win as something that would not only give her students confidence by recognizing their efforts, but show them that the winemaking industry is one that they could go into in the future—which was exactly the case for Hildebrand.
“I originally joined the viticulture class because it interested me and it felt like it would be something that I would want to do, and it is,” said Hildebrand. “I want to be a winemaker.”