Online Vines

Mel Martinez, vineyard manager at Oregon's King Estate Vineyard  listens to an online lecture by OSU's Patty Skinkis.
Mel Martinez, vineyard manager at Oregon's King Estate Vineyard listens to an online lecture by OSU's Patty Skinkis.
In person and online classes allow a larger audience access to OSU expertise in viticulture.
In person and online classes allow a larger audience access to OSU expertise in viticulture.

By Tiffany Woods

Mel Martinez sits down at his computer in his office shortly before 8 a.m. at the chateau-like King Estate winery near Eugene. In a few minutes, a voice emerges from two speakers on his desk.

"Good morning, everyone. We have quite a bit that I would like to cover today."

The voice is streaming live from 60 miles away on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. It's the voice of professor Patty Skinkis, who is lecturing to a room of sleepy-eyed students scribbling in three-ring binders and sipping on coffee thermoses.

They're taking Grapevine Growth and Physiology. Since 2008, Skinkis has been simultaneously offering the upper-division, 10-week course on campus and online so she can reach two audiences at once. Skinkis is not only a professor and researcher, she's also the statewide viticulturist with the OSU Extension Service. When wearing the Extension hat, her job is to educate and help professionals at Oregon's 849 vineyards and 315 grape-crushing wineries. But she can't spend all her time on the road, so this class means she doesn't have to gas up the car as much. She uses a web conferencing software called Adobe Connect that lets online students see in real time the same PowerPoint slides that the students on campus see.

The $500 virtual version is convenient for busy industry professionals. They can watch the lectures live or view recorded ones at their convenience. For Eleni Papadakis, a former winemaker at Domaine Serene in Yamhill County, that meant watching an archived lecture on her laptop in a hotel room in New York where she was attending a wine tasting. "My schedule is so full and Patty is so great that I work the class in whenever I can," she says.

And for Papadakis and her fellow online learners, there's no pressure to get a grade. They don't have to take tests, but they also don't earn the three credits that the on-campus students do. (To be clear, Skinkis' class isn't affiliated with Ecampus, OSU's provider of online degrees.)

Skinkis teaches a second course in the same hybrid manner called Principles and Practices of Vineyard Production, also since 2008. "The first class is about what happens in the vine and the second class is what happens in the vineyard," she says.

To date, 110 on-campus students and 132 online participants have taken the courses, Skinkis says. About half of the online students plan to develop or join commercial enterprises, she says. The other half are already employed in the industry, she adds. They've included vineyard managers, winemakers, agricultural consultants and owners of small vineyards and wineries. They've come from companies that include Adelsheim Vineyards, Stoller Vineyards, Mt. Hood Winery, Montinore Estate and Domaine Drouhin. They've hailed from California, Idaho, Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, Canada and even France.

Teaching to industry professionals might sound like preaching to the choir, but Skinkis says it's not. "A percentage of our industry doesn't have an education in viticulture or enology. They learned on their own," she says. "Also, winemakers might have had more enology education and now want to learn about viticulture or they may need up-to-date information. They don't have the time to keep up with all the new research while managing their vineyards and wineries."

No need to explain that to Martinez. Now 37, he has been at King Estate since 1993, working his way up from fieldworker to vineyard manager in 2002. But there's always more to learn, he says. So as a crew outside his office ties canes of Pinot noir in the rain, he hunches over a printout of the day's lecture and follows along with Skinkis' slides on his computer screen.

She asks the class which berries in a cluster ripen first. Martinez thinks. Could it be those on top? Maybe it's the bottom. He writes "middle top" on his handout.

"It's a trick question," Skinkis says. "There's not any one group that ripens first."

Martinez leans forward and rests his chin in his left hand. He's unclear about positions of the grapes on a cluster. In the chat box on the screen he types on his dusty keyboard, "Does bottom refer to those berries closest to the peduncle?" He sends it. Immediately Skinkis and his online classmates can see his question, which Skinkis reads aloud and answers in front of the entire class.

In a survey of her class in 2010, two-thirds of her on-campus students said their learning was enhanced by the industry professionals' online questions. "It's great," says Orion LeGuyonne, one of Skinkis' on-campus students who aspires to work at a winery. "It shows there's a wine grape community here that we're a part of. Sometimes just sitting in class, it seems far away. But this bridges that gap. It shows students how what we're learning in this class can be applied."

"A lot of times," Skinkis says, "I'll be talking about a topic and the interaction gives clarity. For example, vineyard nutrition; it's a meaningless laundry list of nutrients for some. But when an online students writes, 'I use boron,' there's context as to why what the on-campus students are learning is important."

The learning is a two-way street. "This class helps me to learn the – what do you call that? – the terminology of viticulture," says Martinez, who arrived from Mexico with limited English and no college. Thanks to the class, he says, he'll be able to talk shop better with other vineyard managers and winemakers. In today's lecture, for example, he learned that methoxypyrazines is the term to describe grassy aromas like those found in bell peppers and that their levels decrease with exposure to sunlight. As Skinkis says the six-syllable word, Martinez writes it phonetically.

The class has also inspired him to record more data about when buds break forth from the canes, leaves unfold, clusters of flowers appear, and growth starts after fertilizer is applied. Martinez plans to archive this detailed data, he says, and compare seasons to make better management decisions.

Also because of the class, he intends to run more tests on nutrient levels in the leaves to make sure the vines are healthy. He says he's also going to step up his efforts to optimize the balance between leafy canopy growth and fruit production, and he'll keep track of that ratio. Additionally, he now plans to leave 20 buds on the vine for every initial pound of pruned canes, per guidelines learned in class.

One lesson Martinez has learned came from a simple class assignment to snip a dormant cane from a vine and grow it in water. His cutting sits in his windowsill. Buds have broken through. He'll count the clusters of flowers that later appear to get an idea of the fruit potential. Prior to this class, he didn't know this could be done in water. Previously he waited until the clusters appeared on the vines in the field around May. But now he can clip a cane in late December, sprout it inside and estimate in February or March how much fruit he might have. Knowing this earlier will help him decide how much dormant cane debris to prune.

Pruning is one of the topics Skinkis' students, and the public for that matter, can learn through a series of videos she made and posted on YouTube. Using a software program called Pachyderm, she also created two interactive online instructional presentations about herbicides and grapevine nutrition. Additionally, she facilitates an online forum for her classes where students discuss the impact of crop thinning, comment on journal articles, and post photos of buds breaking open on their cane cuttings.

The students in the lecture room start to pack up their notebooks and water bottles. Skinkis looks at the clock. "I see we're out of time," she says in a hurried voice. "Next Thursday, the cuttings report is due. For those of you who had no growth, I'll have an alternative assignment…." Her voice fades out as students shuffle out of the room, some talking about extra credit, others about next week's guest speakers.

Martinez closes the conferencing software on his computer. Class dismissed.