Wine Not Study in the Hill Country?

Students converse outside the Bayer Plant and Soil Sciences building on Texas Tech University's Lubbock campus.

In a never-before-seen addition to the curriculum of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech University, students will have the opportunity to study the trending local food and wine industry from the heart of the Texas Hill Country.

The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech University named the Illinois native, Ed Hellman, Ph.D., for a full professorship based in Fredericksburg. Hellman grew up in an urban setting.

“From the very beginning, I was always interested in gardening and nature,” Hellman said.

After graduating from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in horticulture, Hellman pursued his doctorate at the University of Arkansas. Hellman said the truly defining moment in his career was taking a position at Kansas State University circa 1988. Fate led Hellman to work on the ground level of Kansas’ first commercial winery, and it was this act that introduced him to extension-like work and fueled his passion for 10 years.

According to Hellman, Oregon is really a “mecca” for horticulture enthusiasts. When the extension specialist position opened up at Oregon State University, Hellman leaped at the opportunity. While West Texas is truly an agricultural community, Hellman says, “They can grow anything in Oregon.” Hellman spent six-and-a-half years working constantly with fruit and nut crop producers and shifted his career focus toward extension.

In 2001, Hellman made a decision he never saw coming. Texas had a small, emerging wine industry. Just as his extension work had instilled in him, Hellman saw the potential to be a part of helping Texas develop its wine industry. Texas Tech University facilitated this opportunity with Hellman’s former faculty position, where he worked with a 25 percent research and teaching appointment and a 75 percent appointment with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

West Texas and wine go hand in hand. Cover photo submission.
West Texas and wine go hand in hand.

The program in Fredericksburg is a new role for Hellman. Starting on Sept. 1, 2017, he now devotes 100 percent of his time to Texas Tech University and educating the future generations of the fruit and nut crop industry. Though he is no longer in a traditional extension role, Hellman plans to continue Tech’s unique style of outreach.

“Outreach is what inspired the viticulture and enology certifications,” said Hellman. “We target wine industry people.”

The time-tested successes of the certifications warrant full-time faculty members for both viticulture and enology. Viticulture is the study of growing grapes. Enology is the technical term for winemaking. In addition to traditional four-year undergraduate students, the goal is to provide education to those interested in growing grapes, making wine, or furthering their knowledge while they are employed in the marketing and management of a vineyard or wine label.

Viticulture and enology go hand-in-hand academically and are taught as such at Texas Tech. However, there are many moving pieces in wine production because the industry is not as vertically integrated as one might assume. Most labels do not actually grow their own grapes. Vineyards, especially those found in climates like West Texas and the West Coast, produce a wide variety of grapes and most ripen at different times of the year. The supply chain, fermentation, and marketing aspects of the industry are the final pieces to an already complex chemistry behind producing the perfect cluster.

According to the USDA, Texas ranks fifth in grapes grown and wine produced behind California, Washington, New York and Oregon in respective order. Over 80 percent of grapes grown in Texas come from the High Plains, where they thrive in the dryer, cooler temperatures of the semiarid climate. Since Hellman’s introduction to the Texas wine industry, it has grown dramatically.

“Recognition comes from quality, not production volume,” Hellman said. “Today, Texas wines are consistently winning awards as a legitimate source of quality worthy of national and international attention.”

The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech already provides non-traditional distance education. The viticulture certification is mostly distance, which is why Fredericksburg is so important. As the study of the vines and everything prior to winemaking, the teaching vineyard was established in Fredericksburg in 2011 and is really what anchors the program to the Hill Country since the conversation began.

“Twenty-five percent of my time wasn’t enough to truly cultivate these programs,” Hellman said. “I wanted a full-time position because there’s so much to do in Texas from a wine and local food perspective.”

The other aspect of Tech’s new program in Fredericksburg is the wildly popular local food scene. Tourism is exploding in the Hill Country with shops, boutiques and wineries drawing people to the quaint German community. Hellman says tourists “demand good food.”

When Plant and Soil Science’s department chair, Eric Hequet, Ph.D., visited the campus in Fredericksburg, he witnessed first-hand what Hellman was so excited about. Hellman remembered the conception of their dream back in 2016 fondly.

“They’re living the local food and wine scene out here in the Hill Country,” Hellman said.

The summer of 2016 birthed the proposal for a program based in Fredericksburg from Hellman and Hequet backed by strong local support from the Fredericksburg community. Members of the privately-funded foundation for what would be called the Texas Center for Wine and Culinary Arts even journeyed to Lubbock to help run the proposal up the chain of administrative command at the university level. The vegetable section of the proposal warrants another full-time faculty member to be based on the home campus in Lubbock.

Because the campus is located between Austin and San Antonio, the program is a huge opportunity for students who may not be able to afford a long-distance education. Central Texas College, in particular, leases similar space alongside Texas Tech University at the privately owned Hill Country University Center to create an environment of a four-year degree. Resources, like study areas and technology, are available to students. While Texas Tech University won’t be sending faculty for all basic courses, Central Texas College has them onsite and the “2+2” agreement ensures an efficient form of credit transfer.

“The High Plains is considered by many as the best wine growing region in Texas, but being from Austin I’m partial to the Hill Country,” said Reese Johnson, a senior viticulture and enology major. “I could see students getting to study the hundreds of wineries around the Fredericksburg area, learning so much, and making connections they will carry over into the real world.”

The program comes at a perfect time with the federal government encouraging the production of local food from a different perspective through language in the most recent farm bill. Grants are available to local producers and researchers to ramp up production in a more widespread national model. Hellman said the majority of greenhouse crops, like fruits and vegetables, come from the east and west coasts and the southernmost regions in Texas. The middle of the country is responsible for the production of grain products and our animal agriculture. The cost of shipping, logistics, and food waste in between is astounding.

“This is not just a trending fad,” Hellman said. “Our culture is shifting toward going into the local grocery store and demanding to understand where the food came from.”

It’s another hope of the department that students from the nearby metropolitan areas will understand that 100-plus acres are no longer a necessity to be a part of food production. Urban agriculture will be integrated into all aspects of teachings, and Hellman expects a course dedicated to covering new production methods. Vertical farms and hydroponics are a logical solution to producing the quantity demand as populations continue to surge.

“This program is the future of agriculture – a production system different from tradition. We can grow food in a lot of different places in a lot of different ways,” Hellman said. “And we should.”