Vinny Van Patten/Courtesy Photo

Acidic aromas fill the air, fruit flies flit around faces and massive machines whir. Welcome to the life of a San Luis Obispo winery employee.

According to The Tribune, the local wine industry raked in $1.9 billion in 2015. Cal Poly graduates along with their Learn by Doing mentality play an integral role in the field.

“I think it’s the hands-on experience,” Cal Poly alumnus David Beress said. “I’ve actually had employers tell people that they prefer Cal Poly grads. Not to say that Davis and Fresno aren’t as good, but their focus is more on statistical stuff as opposed to actual hands-on practical learning.”

Here are some stories of these Cal Poly graduates in the industry, from the fairly new to those wise with age.

Graphic by Vinny Van Patten

Alejandra Alvarez: Graduate intern

Cal Poly graduate Alejandra Alvarez currently interns for Treasury Wine Estates in Paso Robles. Alvarez graduated in Spring 2016 with a degree in wine and viticulture.

“I originally wanted to study biology, but I also had an interest in business and I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to do,” Alvarez said. “When I was applying for schools my senior year of high school, I actually had my counselor recommend wine business.”

Being both a Cal Poly graduate and a local, raised in Arroyo Grande, Alvarez has grown to appreciate the opportunities that Cal Poly and the Central Coast have to offer.

“It’s amazing that we have vineyards we can visit on field trips that also have really good relations with Cal Poly. All of our teachers have such a passion for what they’re doing and they don’t just teach it, but are also involved and have a lot of experience,” she said. “On top of that, the school alone carries so much weight with its name.”

Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program was ranked fourth in the nation in 2016 for best colleges offering viticulture and enology degrees by StartClass. In 2011, the Cal Poly wine and viticulture program won the California Exposition and State Fair’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award for its contributions to the California wine industry, according to Cal Poly university news and information.

Alvarez’s internship has her driving up and down the Central Coast working with different vineyards.

“As the SLO Relations intern, I get to work with a lot of different people and lands because we’re contracting all up and down the Central Coast from Santa Barbara County all the way up to Monterey County. So I drive a lot and I’m exposed to a lot of different vineyard processes and a lot of different qualities of grapes,” Alvarez said.

Cal Poly graduates’ influence in the San Luis Obispo wine industry is significant and spreading, according to Claiborne and Churchill winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia.

“You see it outside of the area now. You see it up in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara County. Cal Poly alumni are definitely becoming a force within the wine industry,” Parker-Garcia said.

Coby Parker-Garcia: Winemaker

Parker-Garcia shared his knowledge gained from making wine for 16 years. The born-and-raised-San Luis Obispo native never imagined he would stay on the Central Coast.

“As the industry kind of developed and started taking off, I thought it was a good opportunity to ride that wave,” Parker-Garcia said. “Now I’ve been making wine since 2000. I graduated from Cal Poly in 2002 and have been working commercial harvest since then.”

As the resident winemaker, Parker-Garcia deals with vineyard operations, contracts and relations. Aside from his primary duties, day-to-day tasks vary depending on the season.

For Parker-Garcia, fall consists of picking grapes, then processing, fermenting and getting the product into barrels or tanks. Spring is mostly bottling the white wines and getting a head start on prepping the vineyards for the next growing season. Red wines are bottled at the end of summer and sold along with white wines during the summer months.

Claiborne and Churchill’s entire full-time staff is made up of Cal Poly graduates. According to Parker-Garcia, Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto gives graduates a leg up on others.

“I’m a firm believer of [the Learn by Doing method]. I think that you get a sense of people who have actually gotten their hands dirty, dived into something and actually performed a task rather than just read about it on the book end of things,” he said.

David Beress: Winemaker

Video by Arinee Rahman

Beress graduated in Winter 2015 with a degree in wine and viticulture. However, he began working at Still Waters Vineyards in Paso Robles six years ago before he started attending Cal Poly. 

“Once I started working here, I realized that this was my passion and that Cal Poly had a program so I decided to go for that,” Beress said.

According to Beress, employees at smaller wineries do more than just work in the tasting room and out in the vineyard; the winery holds events such as concerts and weddings where employees help out.

“Day-to-day is different during harvest, but I pretty much focus on being in the winery as much as I can,” Beress said.

Being a Cal Poly alumni is something many Still Waters employees have in common. In addition to Beress, Still Waters owners Paul and Patty Hoover also graduated from Cal Poly with degrees in agriculture and child development, respectively.

“There’s a lot of hard work and cleaning that goes into winemaking, so it’s not as glamorous as it looks,” Beress said.

For example, anything that touches a finished wine, from the equipment outside of the winery to the fruits that are processed, must be sanitized before being put to use, Beress said. Still Waters uses hot water and a pressure steam cleaner to sanitize their equipment.

Despite the physical labor aspect of the job, winemaking has its rewards.

“Being able to taste a finished product when it’s going into bottle that you’ve made and seen go through the whole process is my favorite part of the job,” Beress said.

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