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Cal Poly Wines

San Luis Obispo County

Cal Poly students prove they ‘Learn by Doing’ as they release award-winning wines

"California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo," is a mouthful. Much easier to remember is the name Cal Poly, a quiet Central Coast institution that has been around for more than a hundred years.

During that time, the laid back California institution has trained thousands of students in agriculture, architecture, engineering, liberal arts and associated sciences. Their ag program has aided the Golden State’s premier growing environment immensely. Viticulture (grape growing) has been a mainstay at Cal Poly for the past thirty years and has provided a platform for many students interested in California’s mainstay crop that has become among the finest in the entire world.

Since 2006, Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture has offered a three headed wine and viticulture major with a trio of concentration fields; viticulture, enology and wine business. It is the only collegiate program inside or outside the US that offers such diversity to its students. As an adjunct to this program, Cal Poly students grow, make and sell their own brands of wine.

“The idea came from the Advisory Council that oversees the wine program,” informed Adrienne Ferrara, Wine Brand Manager for Cal Poly. “We now have almost 280 students involved in one aspect of the wine program or another. The students can major in whichever facet of the wine industry they feel most comfortable. It’s entirely up to them to choose which they prefer.” The wines are made from scratch by the students who have the luxury of having skilled winemakers (see Spotlight section) standing right over their shoulders.

“Most of the grapes are grown in Cal Poly’s meticulously maintained 17-acre rolling vineyards that are located about a mile from our campus,” Ferrara explained further. “Most of the students who tend these vineyards actually walk to and from the area. When the grapes reach fruition, the enology students take over and produce the wines. Each year, several outstanding students are designated as winemakers (see Winemakers Section) and have the responsibility of crushing the grapes and then making all of the decisions that actually affect the wines. They also bottle the wines and learn all the intricacies of preparing the wines to go to market.” Finally, the marketing aspect of the wine involves Cal Poly’s wine business students. These students create marketing strategies and develop programs that involve capital requirements for domestic and global competitions.

The amazing thing about all this effort is the incredible success the Cal Poly wine program has already enjoyed. Cal Poly’s wines have won numerous Gold Medals at some of the most prestigious competitions in the country. Among these awards is the esteemed Chairman’s Award at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, a truly outstanding symbol of accomplishment in the wine industry. Each year around 2,000 cases of Cal Poly’s wines are produced, including a second label named after the school’s nickname, the Mustangs. Most of the wines are directed at the school’s fortunate alumni base, some 90,000 plus, the school’s 2,800 employees and a few local San Luis Obispo restaurants and shops.

“We take what our vineyards and donors provide,” added Adrienne Ferrara. “Our motto at the school is ‘Learn by Doing’ and we follow that dictum to the letter. Whenever we have a bumper crop of fruit and are able to make some additional wine, we are happy to offer it to an entity such as Gold Medal Wine Club.”

The relative rarity of Cal Poly’s wines is a pure bonus for Gold Medal’s broad membership. The wines offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a marvelous university and the celebrated work of its dedicated wine and viticulture students. Keep in mind the finished products are the combined efforts of numerous student workers and not the handiwork of a relatively few wine professionals.

The Art of Fine Wine

Picture of The Art of Fine Wine

Poly Canyon Trestle

Poly Canyon Trestle is home to Cal Poly’s agriculture fields and vineyards in San Luis Obispo County, California. The piece was done by Cal Poly graduate, and SLO resident, Dan Berkeland.

About the Vineyard

Picture of About the Vineyard

While San Luis Obispo is a major Central Coast location and Cal Poly’s 17-acre vineyard sits about a mile from the main campus, the entire wine growing area between Los Angeles and San Jose is a possible source for Cal Poly’s wines.

The greater part of fruit used for the program originates in the school’s vineyard and allows the fruit to be labeled as estate grown, a major marketing plus. Also, through the years, many quality grapes have been solicited by friends of the program and are given to the school for use in making Cal Poly’s assortment of wines. This provides a low cost basis for the wines. The resulting profits are then plowed back into the wine program to increase laboratory quality and generally improve the entire program.

Michael Bruzus, Nicole Chamberlain, & Michael Horton - Student Wine Makers

Picture of Michael Bruzus, Nicole Chamberlain, & Michael Horton - Student Wine Makers

Each year, two or three exemplary students are selected to be winemakers for the school year. Most have had some prior winery experience, either working in the cellars of existing wineries or in the labs of wineries.

Their reward is extremely long work days and the fulfillment of being able to add the term winemaker to their resumes upon graduations.

Three winemakers had a hand in making the wines for this month’s Gold Wine Club selections;

Michael Bruzus (2007 student) with former jobs at Picchetti Winery and Domaine Alfred,

Nicole Chamberlain (2007 student) who originally began her university career with the hopes of following her father into dentistry.

Michael Horton (2008 student), who worked at Courtside Cellars and also the noted Montana Gisborne Winery in New Zealand.

All have proven to be dedicated winemakers with exceptional futures ahead for each in the wine industry.

Go Cal Poly! Go Mustangs! Go really good wines!

Christian Roguenant - Mentor Winemaker

Picture of Christian Roguenant - Mentor Winemaker

When the choice of choosing a mentor winemaker to oversee the Wine and Viticulture program at Cal Poly came to be, it was both amazing and quite fortunate that Frenchman Christian Roguenant was available to the university. Now, 52, the University of Dijon-trained Burgundian has practically seen it all in the worldwide wine business. Besides winemaking stints within France that included Beaujolais, Champagne, the Loire Valley and the Rhône Valley, Roguenant has also worked in numerous other locales. These include Germany, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and even South Korea. South Korea?

‘It was in the late 1980’s,” the personable Roguenant recently recalled. ‘I worked with the owners of Soju (a sweetish vodka-like product distilled from tapioca, potatoes and other ingredients) to produce a sparkling wine for the 1988 Olympics that were held in Seoul. It was the experience of a lifetime that I wouldn’t trade for anything.” Roguenant came to the United States in 1986 to assist in Maison Deutz’s California sparkling wine operation. He continued his consulting business and eventually wound up with the corporate conglomerate that owns Baileyana Winery, Tangent Winery and other brands. Here is where the story gets truly interesting.

‘Our owner, John Niven, Sr,” explained Roguenant, ‘was dear friends with the then president of Cal Poly, Warren Baker. When the details of the Wine and Viticulture Program were first explained, Mr. Niven decided to get us all involved. He extended the use of our winery as a place for actually producing the wines and then he offered me the chance to be the program’s winemaker monitor (celebrated winemaker Ken Volk actually initiated the program prior to 2006). I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to help a group of young people who were interested in the wine industry, so I jumped at the offer.” Roguenant considers his career path as nearly perfect for such a job. Of the thirty-odd years he has spent in the worldwide wine industry, nearly half (14 years) has been spent making still wines, the predominant product for Cal Poly’s program. Cal Poly is responsible for all the grapes and new barrels the program uses, as well as the packaging equipment for all the wines. Each year, a new set of students is chosen to perform the winemaking decisions, beginning with the actual crushing, through the blending and storage process, and finally the actual bottling.

‘The students do everything themselves,” he said proudly. ‘I am there throughout the entire process but only in an advisory capacity. I look over their shoulders and if something doesn’t seem quite right, I call a time out and we all sit around and discuss the options. They are not forced to take my suggestions, but they usually do.” Roguenant said the students want very much to give back to the community and work long and hard hours to make the best possible wines. While at the winery, they are treated as part-time employees and actually paid by the winery.”

‘It is important that the university’s cost of product be kept as low as possible,” he added. ‘That way all the profits from the wines can be returned to the university to improve its equipment and expand the parameters of the program.” Even though the program is still in its infancy, some of its first graduates have made great impressions on the industry. The first Cal Poly graduate, Katie Allegra Povak is already the chief enologist for the same company that employs Christian Rougenant.

‘She was really good,” finalized Roguenant. ‘We just couldn’t let her get away from us.”