March 1, 2010
Written by Cory Chandler
The program's online courses address topics such as grapevine biology, vineyard site assessment and development, vine nutrition and water management.
The first graduates of the Texas Viticulture Certification Program received their professional certificates and were celebrated at Flat Creek Estate Vineyards in Marble Falls last month.
“The 15 participants completed the academic portion of the program in December and we recognized them for being the first to complete this two-year program,” said Ed Hellman, the program’s director.
The program is the result of a collaboration between the Department of Plant and Soil Science, the continuing and professional education unit of Texas Tech’s University College, and the AgriLife Extension, an educational agency of Texas A&M University. Seed money for program start-up was provided through a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“This first group was very diverse, both geographically and in terms of experience,” noted Kirk Williams, program instructor with University College, who teaches all of the online courses. “We had people from Houston to Canadian and Tyler, and even one from California who’s going to be growing wine grapes in Texas. Many had been in the commercial vineyard business for years and others were just starting out.”
Some program graduates plan to continue working in commercial viticulture, while others have aspirations toward winemaking, including establishing their own winery, Williams said.
Don Strickler of Dallas, who received his certification, holds a Ph.D. in counseling. He purchased a vineyard in Round Mountain during his participation in the program.
“I had no experience before the course, but found out about the viticulture program while looking into online educational opportunities,” Strickler said.
Strickler purchased a four-acre vineyard, which produces wine grapes he sells to a local vineyard, while taking the program’s Site Selection and Development course.
“I thought the whole program was great,” he said. “It gave me practical information I could apply on plant physiology, temperature conditions, soil selection, grape sampling, plant nutrients, weed and pest control application and equipment.”
“The certification program was designed for people with a serious interest in commercial grape production or professional work in the viticulture industry,” Hellman said. Six program courses – five online and one practical – must be successfully completed within a two-year period to receive professional certification.
“Operating a commercial vineyard is a time-consuming and capital-intensive venture, so the people going through the program must be committed to that goal,” he said. “Participants are required to complete a Prospective Winegrower Workshop through AgriLife Extension or other academic viticulture course work as a prerequisite.”
Hellman added that program participants also are required to complete a distance learning self-assessment to help determine their compatibility with online instruction.
“Having most of the courses online makes it more convenient for people in different areas of the state, especially more remote areas, as well as for people from other states to participate in the program,” said Dalana Williamson, the program’s unit coordinator, also with Texas Tech’s University College.
Susan Ramp of Canadian, who planted a 12-acre vineyard while in the program, said she enjoyed the program’s online discussion opportunities.
“I was able to network with people who had different levels of experience with commercial vineyards and got a lot out of online discussions with them about their experiences and the class content,” she said.
Another graduate, Christopher Lloyd of Tyler, purchased an existing vineyard in 2004 and established a nursery for developing grapevine stock, but wanted to advance his knowledge.
“My passion is the vine, and I’m planning on staying on the nursery side of the business,” Lloyd said. “I got into the program because I wanted to know more about how to grow the best possible grapes. It taught me more about cutting, propagation, grafting and working with rootstock.”
Some program graduates plan to work in commercial viticulture, while others have aspirations toward winemaking, including establishing their own winery.
Program classes do not carry academic credit, but upon course completion graduates receive not only their professional certification, but also 17 continuing education units for a total of 170 clock-hours of instruction, Williams noted.
Online modules address grapevine biology, vineyard site assessment and development, vine nutrition and water management, canopy and crop-load management, and disease, insect and weed management, he said. A final “practical module” provides hands-on experiential learning through instructor-led activities in standard vineyard practices.
“Three one-day sessions comprise the Vineyard Practices course and these sessions are held during three key times of the season – winter, spring/summer and pre-harvest – to encompass all major activities in the vineyard,” Williams explained.
Students must attend each of the three seasonal sessions, which are taught by regional viticulture advisors of the AgriLife Extension Viticulture Team, Hellman added.
“AgriLife Extension has a viticulture advisor in each major wine-grape producing region of the state,” said Hellman. “In addition to providing practical instruction during the program, these advisors are available to provide further information and guidance to these graduates and to help others who are interested in commercial wine-grape growing in Texas.”
Hellman noted that the certification program operates on a cohort system to enhance the learning experience and facilitate networking opportunities for participants, adding that a second group comprised of 24 students began the program last September.
“Each program is limited to 40 participants willing to make the commitment to move through all courses over the two-year period,” he said. “Enrollment in individual courses is not available.”
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