Students in the New Mexico State University fall winemaking and economics class learn everything from picking grapes to bottling wine. If they’re lucky, they also learn how to win wine competition medals.
The class’s malbec and blend of gewürztraminer and picpoul wines earned bronze medals in last year’s New Mexico State Fair Wine Competition in Albuquerque.
Class instructor Dale Ellis, an associate professor in the NMSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, said earning the bronze medals means the wines are commercially viable.
“The amateur wines are judged alongside wines from commercial vendors, so our class wines were in that same category,” Ellis said. “And last year, there were about 1,200 wines that were judged. It was a blind tasting, and there were between 30 and 40 judges.”
Bill Gorman, professor emeritus in the NMSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, started the class in 2011. He said many former students are working in the wine industry.
“Several of our graduates have started – or are in the process of starting – wineries and working in local wineries,” Gorman said. “The very first class had 12 participants, and it has grown to 30 this semester, which is the class capacity.”
And there is already a waiting list for the fall 2018 semester.
Gill Giese, the NMSU Extension Viticulture Specialist, said it’s important for students to learn about the cultural, historical and economical aspects of wine.
“Wine encompasses much of human culture and has been associated with nearly all of civilization, inclusive of New Mexico’s rich history, as wine has been produced here since at least the 1600s,” Giese said. “Wine has long provided a mechanism for a sustainable, land-based economy and healthy lifestyle.”
Part of the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the class encompasses the entire winemaking process. Many hours are spent at the Fabian Garcia Science Center, just off campus on University Avenue, where the NMSU vineyards are located.
Daniel Goodrich, viticulture program coordinator in NMSU’s Extension Plant Sciences, operates the fermentation lab and maintains the vineyards. He also assists with the winemaking part of the class.
“On the first Saturday of the fall semester, we harvest our white grapes,” Goodrich said. “Then we bring the grapes into the fermentation lab and run them through the destemmer crusher. In the white winemaking process, we then press the berries immediately to take them off the skins. After we press them, we transfer them into large stainless steel tanks, and that’s when we start the fermentation process.”
Goodrich said for red wine, the grapes are harvested a little later in the semester, and the skins are left on during fermentation.
The semester is just under four months long, which makes it challenging to complete the entire winemaking process. Goodrich handles whatever lab work the students cannot accomplish due to time constraints.
Aside from processing the wine, Ellis said the economics of winemaking is a big part of the course.
“We go through the cost of actually setting up a boutique winery,” Ellis said. “The students are required to design their own boutique winery, including developing their own label.”
Each semester, the class partners with the private industry to learn about operating a wine business.
“We went to Rio Grande Winery in September,” Ellis said. “We did a tasting and toured the winery, so we had the opportunity to see a real live winery in production.”
Giese said wine is important to the New Mexico economy.
“Wine and wine education are economic drivers in the state, initially as an agricultural endeavor, and also in the realm of retail, tourism and hospitality,” he said. “There are more than 50 bonded wineries in New Mexico.”
Gorman said the New Mexico vineyard and winery industry has grown exceptionally since 1980, and that was a major reason for starting the class.
“Through the efforts of former Extension viticulture specialist Bernd Maier, NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service worked closely with individuals planting vineyards beginning in the late 1990s, but we didn’t have much to offer regarding starting and operating wineries,” Gorman said. “Bernd and I believed there was a need to offer a class in which students not only learned the skills necessary to make good wine, but gained an understanding of how to market wine from small, local wineries and what it costs to open and operate a winery.
Gorman said the program has received considerable support from the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business and the Department of Extension Plant Sciences.
Students in the current class are making the gewürztraminer and picpoul white wine blend, as well as a red wine blend made of various Bordeaux grapes. Depending on the finished product, the wines may be entered in the New Mexico wine competition.