The fruit of the vine at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Viticulture (from the Latin word for vine) is the science, production, and study of grapes. A branch of the science of horticulture, viticulture deals with the series of events that occur in the vineyard.

It never rains in southern California…lie. On this day in late October making my way out of the southland up highway 101 to the central coast, man it poured. But as everyone knows in these parts; we need the rain! Pulling into the agri-college town of San Luis Obispo, the clouds did part and it stayed dry long enough for me to walk my way into the agricultural sciences building on the campus of Cal Poly. There, I met Assistant Professor of Viticulture, Dr. Jean Dodson Peterson, for what would be a speedy yet highly insightful interview.

Dr. Jean Dodson Peterson
Dr. Jean Dodson Peterson

This all came about because I serendipitously ended up sitting next to Andrew (Andy) Thulin, Dean of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences on a flight home last summer from an Ag event in Ohio (see: Cultivate ’17). At thirty-five thousand feet, Andy raved about the great things happening at the university and generously invited me to take a look for myself. I took him up on the offer and without question, I am smarter for it. I want to share that same insight with this blog.

Ebullient and friendly, Dr. Dodson Peterson enthusiastically shared the many good works (and investments) aggressively being undertaken at the University. With more than twelve acres of teaching vineyards, the immediate goal to remove old trestles, replant, and start growing again is well underway. This endeavor along with the need for an on-campus winery, is to be constructed as a place for faculty research and most importantly, as a place to teach students about the ancient craft (and business) of wine making. Jean noted that six of the acquired acres will strictly be used for teaching while the other half will be dedicated to the production of the Cal Poly label (to include three clones of Pinot Noir and an area or “block” of Chardonnay grapes).  

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With a doctorate and masters in horticulture and agronomy (specialization in viticulture) and a bachelor’s of science degree in viticulture and enology all from UC Davis, this professor knows her subject like no one else. Jean plays a major role in curriculum development and improving the diversity and rigor for Cal Poly Ag students. She also knows that it takes a collaborative effort between groups within the University’s Ag department, other universities (like UC Davis and Cal State Fresno) and private entities like Pacific Vineyard Management and Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines to make the University a world-class, global competitor in the teaching of viticulture.

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Aggressively raising capital also bleeds into other university (AgTech) goals specifically in terms of shortening the growing season and conserving water. Jean stated the use of agricultural drone technology, eliciting hyper-spectral images, is not yet being employed in the management of the teaching vineyard however sensor technology, water measurement devices (see: Tule Technologies) and smart phones and tablets are becoming ubiquitous.  Precision agriculture like software, in the words of Silicon Valley investor and co-founder of NetScape, Marc Andreessen, “will eat the world.” Andreessen’s famous Wall Street Journal essay of 2011, makes no bones about it, technology will lead us forward.

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Leading today’s Ag students forward are amazing and openly-passionate educators like Dr. Jean Dodson Peterson. When asked to share a few words about her students and what she hopes they will glean from their experience at Cal Poly, the floodgates opened, “There is nothing better on Earth than seeing a student connect with agriculture.” And she’s clear that tomorrow’s Ag leaders, many from farming families, will need to meet the needs of a growing world population through innovation. “I want to inspire students to incorporate new practices to potentially improve their family farming businesses.”

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