February 17, 2010

Grape expectations

First Texas viticulture certification program graduates get growing

By: Paul Schattenberg, 210-467-6575  
Contact(s): Dr. Ed Hellman, 806-746-6101, ewhellman@ag.tamu.edu
Kirk Williams, 210-601-4347, kirk.w.williams@ttu.edu  
MARBLE FALLS – The first graduates of the Texas Viticulture Certification Program were recognized and presented their professional certificates recently at Flat Creek Estate Vineyards near Marble Falls.

Fifteen individuals, the first to enroll in the program which began in 2007, were presented a Professional Certificate in Viticulture and recognized by program instructors and administrators during a luncheon in their honor.

“These participants completed the academic portion of the program in December, and now we are presenting them their certificates and recognizing them for being the first to complete this two-year program,” said Dr. Ed Hellman, the program’s director, who has joint appointments with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Tech University.

The primarily online program is the result of collaboration between AgriLife Extension, Texas Tech University’s department of plant and soil sciences and the continuing and professional education unit of Texas Tech’s University College. Seed money for program start-up was provided through a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture.

“This first group was very diverse, both geographically and in terms of experience,” noted Kirk Williams, program instructor with University College, who teaches the program’s online courses. “We had people from Houston to the Panhandle area to Tyler, and even one from California who’s going to be growing wine grapes in Texas. Many had been in the commercial vineyard business for years, while others were just starting out.”

Many program graduates plan to continue developing commercial vineyards, while others have aspirations toward wine-making, including establishing their own winery, Williams said.

Don Strickler of Dallas, one of the graduates, has a doctorate in counseling and only recently developed an interest in viticulture. He purchased a preexisting 4-acre vineyard in Round Mountain and now sells wine grapes to a local winery.

“I had no experience before the course, but found out about the viticulture program while looking into online educational opportunities,” Strickler said. “I thought the whole program was great. It gave me practical information I could apply on plant physiology, temperature conditions, soil selection, grape sampling, plant nutrients, and weed and pest control application and equipment.”

The certification program has been designed for people with a serious interest in commercial grape production or professional work in the viticulture industry,” Hellman said. Six program courses – five online and one practical – must be successfully completed within a two-year period to receive professional certification.

“Operating a commercial vineyard is time-consuming and capital-intensive venture, so the people going through the program need to be committed to that goal,” he said. “Participants are required to complete a prospective wine-grape grower workshop through AgriLife Extension or other academic viticulture course work as a prerequisite.”

Hellman added that program participants also are required to complete a distance learning self-assessment to help determine their compatibility with online instruction.

“Having most of the courses online makes it more convenient for people in different areas of the state, especially more remote areas, as well as for people in other states who want to participate in the program,” said DaLana Williamson, the program’s unit coordinator, also with Texas Tech’s University College.

The courses are the academic equivalent of mid-level college courses and go in depth to help participants learn grapevine physiology, according to Williams. Online courses are delivered through the Blackboard online course-management system.

Susan Ramp of Canadian, who planted a 12-acre vineyard while in the program, said she enjoyed the online discussion opportunities.

“I was able to network with people who had different levels of experience with commercial vineyards. There was a lot of online discussion about our experiences and class content,” she said.

In 2004, three years before he began the program, Christopher Lloyd of Tyler had purchased an existing vineyard and began to establish a nursery for developing grapevine stock.

“My passion is the vine, and I’m planning on staying on the nursery side of the business,” Lloyd said. “I got into the program because I wanted to know more about how to grow the best quality grapes. It taught me more about cutting, propagation, grafting and working with rootstock.”

Program classes do not carry academic credit, but upon course completion graduates receive not only their professional certification, but also 17 continuing education units for a total of 170 clock-hours of instruction, Williams noted.

Online modules address grapevine biology, vineyard site assessment and development, vine nutrition and water management, canopy and crop-load management, and disease, insect and weed management, he said. A final “practical module” provides hands-on experiential learning through instructor-led activities in standard vineyard practices.

“Three one-day sessions comprise the Vineyard Practices course and these sessions are held during three key times of the season – winter, spring/summer and pre-harvest – to encompass all major activities in the vineyard,” Williams explained.

Students must attend each of the three seasonal sessions, which are taught by regional viticulture advisors of the AgriLife Extension Viticulture Team, Hellman added.

“AgriLife Extension has a viticulture advisor in each major wine-grape producing region of the state,” said Hellman. “In addition to providing practical instruction during the program, these advisors are available to provide further information and guidance to these graduates and to help others who are interested in commercial wine-grape growing in Texas.”

Hellman noted that the certification program operates on a “cohort” basis to enhance the learning experience and facilitate networking opportunities for participants, adding that second group comprised of 24 students began the program last September.

“Each program is limited to 40 participants willing to make the commitment to move through all courses over the two-year period,” he said. “Enrollment in individual courses is not available.”

The cost of the certification program is $2,400. More information can be found at: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/uc/outreach/conferences/viticulturecertificate.php .