Mason ISD is taking the lead in Texas by providing the first high school viticulture class this year. 18 students are in the class taught by Lance Rasch, the agricultural science teacher.
I was at the first day of this year’s TWGGA Grape Camp and eight of the students were present at the event along with grower Dan McLaughlin of Robert Clay Vineyards and Lance Rasch. All students were in unity by wearing purple t-shirts provided by Sandstone Cellars Winery.
McLaughlin spoke to the audience during the event about the students and viticulture class. “Here are some of the topics the kids have been learning this year already. They’ve gone over careers in viticulture, so they’re learning what kind of careers and opportunities are out there for them. They’ve already gone through and learned how to do berry sampling, how to test for brix, pH, TA (titratable acidity), and why it is important regardless of the industry. This included what brix should be for fruit you would use in jams and jellies versus fruits you might you use for grape juice and wine.
“They’ve also been able to look at mechanical harvesting. They went out to Drew Tallent’s vineyard and see what a mechanical harvester looked like, as well as what it means to go through and do hand harvesting. They’re learning soil and water testing. Now they’re into site selection. The big project for them this year is going to be vineyard design and installation, so they’re going to install a vineyard. They’re out there talking about row orientation, how many rows they’re going to put in, and what varieties they’re going to plant. Later in the year they’re going to get into frost protection and pruning.
“Some of our long term vision for the course will be able to see these students doing things like pruning and harvest competitions, which is some of the things they do in California. In three to four years, we’ll start seeing some of these competitions between the kids.”
I had the opportunity to talk to a couple of the students about the class. None of them knew anything about viticulture except for McLaughlin’s son Blake, and counselors at the school encouraged them all to take the class. Even so, they are all enjoying the class and are learning a lot from it. They said they will probably be planting one vineyard for the entire class instead of individual vineyards, and then learn how to take care of it.
Besides taking field trips to local vineyards, professionals in Texas viticulture have already or will be visiting the Mason school to teach the class. Fritz Westover of Westover Vineyard Advising recently taught a class. Soon to come in will be Lydia Wessner of Lost Draw Vineyards.
Dr. Justin Scheiner, Assistant Professor and Extension Viticulture Specialist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, is writing a curriculum so schools all over Texas can offer the same opportunity to other high school students. Without a doubt, viticulture is growing in Texas.