Credit: Kimi Ahmadi / Mustang News

It’s 9 a.m. and the morning air is infused with the aroma of fermenting grapes. In a tucked-away corner of Cal Poly, a crate brimming with green grapes is starting its journey to become a bottle of Chardonnay. The freshly picked fruits move from Cal Poly’s Trestle Vineyards on campus into the grape-stained hands of Wine and Viticulture interns.

Gabriela Rivas, a senior wine and viticulture major, has been dreaming of this pivotal moment since she was making her own kombucha in high school. 

She’s in the midst of the most critical time of the year for the wine and viticulture department: harvest season. Usually harvest season spans from August through October or November. These are the months when winemakers and grape growers work together to pick the grapes and begin the fermentation process. 

For Rivas and her fellow interns, these are the moments their academic careers have been leading up to. 

“Everything we’ve been learning for the past three years has come alive from the textbooks and is now in our hands,” she said.

This year marks Rivas’s first harvest, and she said that it wasn’t until now that a new passion has been lit within her, deepening her connection to her major. 

Within Cal Poly’s on-campus winery, the Justin & J Lohr Center for Wine and Viticulture that recently opened in the winter of 2022, Rivas has found herself in what she calls “the dream winery.” 

Everything from the barrels to the yeast are donated, and because making wine is such a hands-on experience, Rivas said “this whole facility and all this equipment that I may never see again is such a solid experience to have under my belt.” 

Jim Shumate, winery manager at Justin & J. Lohr Center for Wine and VIticulture, said that Cal Poly’s old on-campus facility was just 850 square feet and the program used to outsource to other wineries in the area to make the Cal Poly wine, but the new building gives them about 16,000 square feet to work with. 

Grapes being processed at the Justin & J. Lohr Center for Wine and Viticulture. Credit: Kimi Ahmadi | Mustang News

Schumate said that “once we had the new facility, we were able to bring everything in-house” and put the students to work.

The team produces anywhere from 1,200 to 1,300 cases of wine for the Cal Poly program in a single harvest. 

Earlier this year, Cal Poly received a cutting-edge gift: an ultrasound machine from Dr. Frederico Cassasa, and it’s the only one of its kind in the United States. 

This innovative technology puts the unpressed whole berries (must) through the machine, which sends ultrasound waves through the berries to expand the cells. This gives the wine more phenolics, or tastes, and different kinds of aromas. 

The state-of-the-art technology gives this winery a distinct advantage, and Rivas said that they are “so spoiled,” and that she “can’t imagine the major without it.” 

“This facility really raises our game here on campus, through the industry, and throughout the entire educational program of what we can offer the students,” Shumate said. 

Central Coast wineries benefit greatly from the education Cal Poly provides to its wine and viticulture students, and according to Molly Scott, Sr. Director of Grower & Community Relations at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, they are “not only dependent upon our partnership with the wine and viticulture program, but Cal Poly as a whole.”

This year marks Shumate’s 25th harvest, and his mentorship style maintains a hands off approach, giving the interns an opportunity to be the key decision makers during the fermentation process. 

“It’s hard to explain, but I look around and we’re all getting so into it,” Rivas said. “When it’s time to go clean the press and get our hands dirty together, we’re all laughing and enjoying the moment, thinking ‘How are we so lucky?’”

An internship at the Cal Poly winery provides the unique opportunity for wine and viticulture students to delve into every step of the process, ask questions and get curious about every aspect of winemaking. It’s a nurturing environment for interns as they navigate their first harvest because “our bosses are also our professors,” Rivas said. 

“I’m trying to ask as many questions as I can to understand the ‘why?’ behind the work orders we’re getting,” Rivas said. 

Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture internship and the department as a whole give students an experience that is  “unmatched anywhere,” as Shumate puts it. 

Both Shumate and Rivas emphasized the dynamic and rewarding nature of the winemaking process, and a goal they share is the joy of getting to take home a case of wine they helped create. 

“We’re thriving, learning, working hard, and we’re seeing the wine come to life,” Rivas said.

Correction: This article was updated at 3:53 p.m. to correct a name misspelling and switch a first and last name.