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In their own Field of Dreams moment, Palo Alto College administrators envisioned a future for an empty field adjacent to a community garden on their South Side campus. They saw what could be: grapevines springing from the ground, wrapped around trellises, organized neatly in rows.
By day, the vineyard would be a classroom for a new program in viticulture and enology, or winemaking. Community members could wander through the vineyard during campus events and learn more about where food and drink originate. If all went to plan, Palo Alto College could even produce its own wine label, Palo Vino, inspired by the school’s palomino mascot.
While this vision is still years from completion, and several hundreds of thousands of dollars away from being funded, Palo Alto College is planting the seeds.
This semester, the first students in the college’s new viticulture and enology program will begin taking classes to learn about the process of turning grapes into wine. There are 24 students in the first cohort and plans in motion to begin a new class every January, with students able to enroll each fall.
“They’re learning the basics of [viticulture] just as the vines are sleeping [in January]. And right as the vine starts to wake up, we can start taking them out to see things, such as a bud break,” said Rose Flores, PAC’s head of horticulture programs. “Then there’s a summer course where they can actually go out and practice. By the time their second year comes along, they’re out in the vineyards.”
Flores hopes students will take advantage of internships in their second year, gaining valuable hours of work experience in functional vineyards, located just North of San Antonio.
Palo Alto College officials have been working on creating the new program for the last several years. Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores, at the time serving as the Palo Alto College president, saw the high demand for labor in the Texas wine industry. He encouraged his staff to move plans along and, by the time Rose Flores began working at PAC in 2015, talks were already underway.
“There’s only one school that offers a degree in viticulture in Texas, and the other schools offer certificates in viticulture, but none of them are below Fredericksburg,” she said. “We see this big need because between all of those schools and us lies the Texas Hill Country, and that’s one of the top growing viticulture areas in the country.”
Palo Alto College is located on San Antonio’s South Side, in close proximity to farmland and with a wide array of existing agriculture programs already offered. The demand for more skilled labor and the existing PAC programs and nearby resources matched up perfectly to offer a program, Flores said.
Bending Branch Winery General Manager Jennifer McInnis agreed, saying it’s the right time to start a new program in viticulture.
As the winemaking industry booms in Texas – it’s among the top five wine-producing states – there’s an ever-growing need for more skilled labor at vineyards and wineries. Students would absolutely find jobs waiting for them upon graduation, McInnis said.
Many of those who work at Texas wineries arrive with a California education and background in grape growing. The two climates and strains of grapes that succeed in each state are very different, said Yessica Labay, the lead instructor for PAC’s new program.
“Climate is so different here than many other states and that hot weather is particularly a challenge here in Texas, especially during harvest times because grapes will start fermenting before they get into the wine room,” Labay said. “So it’s teaching them the Texas way, to be aware of the climate, be aware of your temperatures.”
PAC’s program will be responsive to what Texas growers need and want in the Hill Country area. The program and its curriculum will be shaped in part by an advisory committee comprised of industry professionals, including an enologist from Bending Branch Winery in Comfort.
The committee’s input will help shape Labay’s plans for the yet-to-be constructed PAC vineyard. The vineyard will be home to four different kinds of grapes, all of which will be disease resistant. South Texas’ high humidity rates can make disease and fungus prevalent on grapes, making selecting the right kind to grow incredibly important.
Two of PAC’s future grape strands are well known in Texas, the Victoria Red and Blanc Du Bois, and two are brand new, just developed in California. The two strands from California are so new they don’t even have names yet.
PAC students will be among the first to witness how the San Antonio environment impacts the flavor of the grapes. Each region’s soil, climate, and other environmental factors can add new depths to a wine’s flavor.
“Some people say they can taste the salts in the wines from near the ocean and can taste the different aspects to it,” Flores said. “We don’t know what a wine from this part of Texas, South San Antonio, tastes like, but we hope it is going to be different and interesting.”
Labay and Flores hope the new PAC program will produce talent, but also hope it piques local interest in viticulture and enology. As breweries became popular throughout the city of San Antonio, wineries remained a drive away, prevalent in Hill Country, but sparse closer into the city.
With classes of adults experienced in winemaking ready to work in the market and open agriculture land common on the South Side of San Antonio, perhaps that tide will turn, Flores said.