The Central Coast of California has an abundance of award-winning wineries and vineyards and provides opportunities for real-world experiences for students of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to research viticulture and winemaking on the Fountain vineyard on the Cal Poly campus and to seek internships at local vineyards and winery. Research and intern. The students also have the newest state-of-the-art facility in the United States on campus. In the Fall of 2020, a new JUSTIN AND J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture opened on the Cal Poly campus. The Center “includes a state-of-the-art, 5,000-case bonded 15,600-square-foot Winery,” according to the department’s website, and includes barrel rooms, a bottling room, a fermentation hall, and a research lab.  

As of January 2024, the Wine and Viticulture Department (WVIT) in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) provides a learn-by-doing base for the wine business, viticulture, and winemaking. Cal Poly is the only Viticulture program that has all three elements – business, viticulture, and enology. According to their website, “this program is the largest of its kind in the United States.” Andrew Thulin who is the current dean of the Cal Poly CAFES states that the Center and the fourteen-acre teaching vineyard “will cultivate the trained talent that the wine industry relies on.” 

JUSTIN AND J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture in 2020

 JUSTIN AND J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture in 2020
Photo found at the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture website

But this was not always the case. An extension course was offered at the university in 1992 with the goal of achieving a wine marketing certificate. Then, in the Fall of 1998, there was a campaign to include an Agriculture minor in wine and viticulture by three departments. Before this, the university had taught a basic course in wine-grape growing as part of its crop science program. Cal Poly’s Extended Education program provided wine marketing because many students from agriculture, speech, and biology business majors enrolled in this Extended Education program. And because they were part of the extension education, they would still be available to industry people.

The extension classes overflowed with regular students and people from the industry. These classes were directed by two agribusiness professors, Bill Amspacher and Phil Doub, and one food science and nutrition professor, Bob Noyes. At the time, Paul Fountain, who was the Department Head and Professor in Crop Science, joined with other faculty members to write the proposal for the minor course requirements to be housed in the Crop Science department. The proposal was that these extension classes, along with the university’s regular courses, would help produce a degree or certificate in wine as a minor (secondary area of study) rather than a major area of study in the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences, a wine minor. 

Several alumni of the College of Agriculture were now in the business of making wine, and they wanted to see the wine program grow at Cal Poly. One of these interested alumni included Janice Mondavi of Napa Valley’s Mondavi family, who graduated from Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture with an Agribusiness degree. She hosted a banquet with a crowd of 140, and the proceeds benefited the Vines to Wines Club of Cal Poly. Both Cal Poly’s President Warren J. Baker and Dean of Agriculture Joe Jen also backed this proposed wine as a minor area of study. 

The proposal went through several campus committees and had to go through a final approval at California State University headquarters in Long Beach. By the school year 1999-2000 there were two professors at Cal Poly teaching wine-related courses, Keith Patterson and Paul Fountain. 

Then an article, “Cal Poly and Gallo create a Vineyard,” appeared in the Summer Mustang newspaper edition on July 1, 1999, by Erin Crosby, which announced more news about wine and viticulture education at Cal Poly. E. & J. Gallo and Cal Poly formed a partnership providing students with the opportunity to learn how to plant, manage, and process a vineyard. Through this new partnership, Gallo supported Cal Poly to create a 150-acre vineyard on the university’s Chorro Creek Ranch property just south of Cuesta College on Highway 1. The $2.4 million project was funded entirely by Gallo. Cal Poly provided the land and water. 

Chorro Creek Ranch Property  1999

Chorro Creek Ranch Property  1999

According to Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture at that time, Mark D. Shelton, “the vineyard will be built in eight phases over approximately the next decade. The first phase of 40 acres is set to begin in August 1999 with ground preparation, irrigation, and trellising. Planting grapes will begin in February, if the weather allows it.”

Shelton continued, “the students will be involved in everything: site planning, land preparation, soil testing, and vineyard management.” Even though the vineyard acreage was modest-sized at 152 acres, it was a major advance for Cal Poly. The campus was working with an 18-acre vineyard that had been planted previously, and Cal Poly, as was mentioned earlier, was offering two classes on winemaking.

And then it was announced, “with the construction of the project, Cal Poly will also be starting a new wine science minor for students interested in the field. If demand in the field continues to grow, the vineyard could one day accommodate 400 students, and the school will consider implementing a new major.”

Photos found at the WVIT Cal Poly website

Photos found at the WVIT Cal Poly website

There are currently nearly 300 undergraduate majors in the program for the 2023-2024 school year.  It has been a long harvest. Department Head and Professor, Benoit Lecat continues to expand the viticulture studies.  But look how much wine and viticulture has grown at Cal Poly.


The Fall 1998 Cal Poly Magazine, in an article entitled “Harvesting Something” by Bob Anderson

The Summer Mustang issue published July 1, 1999 in an article entitled “Cal Poly and Gallo create a Vineyard,” by Erin Crosby