Kent State Ashtabula Offers Ohio's Only Winemaking Degree

For some college students, the study of alcohol is done recreationally, after classes, and they certainly don’t get any credit hours from it.

But for students in Kent State Ashtabula’s “wine degree,” the study of alcohol is serious business. The school hosts the only degree of its kind in Ohio. The two-year program has two paths: viticulture-- the study of the growing of grapes--or enology--the study of winemaking. Some students choose to study both.

Recently, Kent State Ashtabula partnered with Laurello Vineyards in Geneva, Ohio. The winery is locally-owned and makes classic, Old-World inspired blends, along with new and unique flavors like a habanero-infused ice wine. Kimberly Laurello and her husband Larry run the vineyard and winery.

“It’s quite exciting to see their interest and excitement,” Kim Laurello said. “I think being a small boutique winery, it’s a little more hands-on. It was a just wonderful adventure to take.”

The wine degree is primarily online, which can make it difficult to learn such a hands-on skill. Before Kent State collaborated with Laurello’s, the students didn’t create the wine from start to finish. Instead, they spent a few hours at wineries across the region to gain experience.

Now, the students create a product with Kent State’s brand that’s sold to the general public. A portion of the profits go back to the wine degree.

Program director Ed Trebets says creating a product is one of the most important elements of the degree.

“That’s the true sign of a winemaker, when you can get your product out there and have the consumer taste it,” Trebets said. “So for us to be able to put a label on our bottles to get it out there, to show them, ‘hey, this is what the students are doing,’ just gives us more credibility.”

The students enjoy learning from Trebets, who has a background as a high school chemistry teacher and head winemaker at another Grand River Valley winery.

“He’s a great resource for the program. You need anything, he’ll help you achieve it,” student Cynthia Schalmo said. “He is the program.”

Trebets started working full-time at Kent State Ashtabula in 2016 and loves teaching the next generation of winemakers.

“It’s always different; things change,” he said. “You have to be creative, you have to know how to solve problems. It’s wonderful to see the end product after you’ve worked so hard during the year to grow the grapes, to harvest, and then to be able to put it in the bottle and have a person enjoy that bottle, that’s what’s rewarding.

Joe Glista is a student in the program, but he already owns his own winery in Mahoning County. Even though he knows how to make wine, he wanted to learn more about the chemistry and science of the craft, in the hopes of improving his product.

“It’s so dynamic. There are so many different styles, so many different techniques. There are so many different aromas and flavors,” Glista said. “It’s a very complex beverage for something that’s just made out of grapes.”

Most of his classmates learn the opposite way. They study the textbook first, with the hope of one day working for or owning their own wineries. 

Fellow student Robin Mermer hopes to turn the farm she lives on into a winery with a tasting room. When Glista offered his classmates the opportunity to see the bottling process, she immediately volunteered.

“Joe’s very helpful. He’s kind of like the leader of the group,” Mermer said. “He’s very knowledgeable about the whole process.

Student Cynthia Schalmo says volunteering at Glista’s winery, The Vineyards at Pine Lake, allows her to learn more than just the textbook theories of winemaking.

“Joe is unique in that he is a winery owner, winemaker, and he’s a student. It’s great for us be able to come and learn from a fellow student,” Schalmo said. “There’s a level of patience that he offers us as interns that we may not be getting from some of the other winemakers who haven’t had to go through this process.”

Instructor Ed Trebets says with more than 300 wineries in Ohio, there’s a need for new employees who have studied enology or viticulture.

The students started the partnership with Laurello’s by producing a red blend and a white Riesling. This year, the students are producing ice wine for the first time. It’s made with a Vidal Blanc grape, picked at exactly 17 degrees, so the grape is frozen.

“It’s like picking frozen marbles,” Kim Laurello said. “You’re relying on Mother Nature. When is she going to be ready for you to pick those grapes? Usually it occurs in December, sometimes it will go early January, this year it was much later.”

The Laurellos asked the students to volunteer to help pick the wines, but not all of the students are in the area or able to participate. Those who did spent the night harvesting grapes.

Lori Lee is the senior special assistant of academic affairs at Kent State Ashtabula. She says the campus is ideally located to host the program.

“We have the largest concentration of wineries in the state of Ohio in this tri-county region here—Lake, Ashtabula, Geauga County-- and it just continues to grow. So there’s definitely a need for our local industry to have access to students that have taken the courses and have some basic knowledge,” Lee said. “The industry across the state of Ohio has embraced the students and the program we’re offering.”

Lee says the degree boasts a 100 percent placement rate.

“We have 24 graduates, 22 of which have jobs either in the industry or related fields. The other two are accomplished home winemakers who never had an intention of going out and getting a job in the industry. They’re doing exactly what they set out to do,” Lee said. “It’s exciting for the industry to have such a phenomenal placement rate with our students, where when they complete programs here, they have jobs to go to.”

Some students take a few courses in winemaking without planning to earn a degree. The school now offers a certificate program for those who don’t plan to earn an associate’s degree.

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