As grape growers and winemakers in the Grand Valley and North Fork Valley tackle what is expected to be the biggest harvest since 2011, a recent morning found pickers studiously moving up and down the rows of grapes at the Orchard Mesa Research Center.
These weren’t your typical ag workers, if there is such a thing in an industry where labor normally is a get-it-when-you-can proposition.
Instead, a handful of students from Colorado State University were sampling first-hand what it takes to transform grapes into wine. A visitor found Morgan Bowen and Rob Hausmann working with the morning sun at their backs, snipping off clusters of marble- sized Chardonnay grapes and carefully dropping them into the canary-yellow totes for transport to the research center’s pocket-sized winery.
“We’re all members of the Vines to Wines club at CSU and we’re trying to get the students out here to experience this part of it,” said Bowen, a horticulture major with an emphasis in enology/viticulture and currently president of the club.
She laughingly admitted she came to Colorado from California’s Livermore Valley, a wine-growing region on the east side of San Francisco Bay, where her family owns vineyards and “a small boutique winery.”
“My family’s in the (wine) business back home and I thought I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” said Bowen, who is working on degrees in horticulture as well soil and crop science. “I was visiting different schools and I knew CSU had an enology program.
“I came here and I thought, ‘Maybe, I think I’ll try it again’ and found it’s something I love.”
State viticulturist Horst Caspari, a professor at CSU, said the school offers a degree in horticulture and students can take a concentration in enology and viticulture.
“There are probably 30 to 40 people in the program at any one time,” Caspari said. “And numbers are up every year, which is encouraging.”
Not everyone picking grapes was a budding winemaker. Hausmann, from Kampsville, Illinois, is studying fermentation and said he helped plant the strings of hops spiraling up guide wires nearby.
And down the row of grapes were Aman Vashisht of India, working on a research project about water banking, and graduate assistant Manijeh Varzi of Iran, a PhD candidate in civil engineering emphasizing irrigation.
The small winery on Orchard Mesa, named the Ram’s Point Winery after the school mascot, is aimed at training future wine-industry talent, said state enologist Steve Menke, also a CSU professor.
“I can only give them the basics” in the classroom, Menke said. “We like them to come over here and do the harvest, to pick and press and bottle some of our experimental wines from last year.”
Having an alcohol-themed club on the CSU campus is a bit tricky, said Bowen, given the school’s strict alcohol regulations.
All the students under 21 are closely regulated by a “taste and spit” rule, similar to that used by under-age culinary students learning how to pair food and wine.
“It’s been a little tricky, being a club on campus,” Bowen said. “But we’re very careful and this week we’re going to have our first tasting at an Italian restaurant off-campus.”
The wines won’t be Colorado wines, she said.
“No, not this time,” she said, ruefully. “But in the future we’d like to help expand people’s palates into Colorado wines and other cool-climate wines.”