Leader Reveals Plans for Cal Poly

College administrator with background in molecular sciences also ran mobile wine lab

by Andrew Adams
cal poly jim cooper
California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has named Jim Cooper the head of its wine program. The former associate dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also worked in the Central Coast wine industry.
San Luis Obispo, Calif.—Jim Cooper, the new head of Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program, sees the school providing California and the nation with a crop of students who understand how to make good wine and then sell it.

Based on his experience and observations, Cooper said the most challenging part of the wine trade is not necessarily growing grapes or turning juice into wine. “The hard part is selling it and building a brand and not going bankrupt,” he said. “That’s what Cal Poly is hoping to make as (its) brand.”

Cooper said because the wine and viticulture program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, incorporates grapegrowing, winemaking and business, its students are better prepared to handle the demands of the profession.

Since taking over the post as director of the program in July, Cooper said he has been getting the school’s vineyard in shape for harvest. He hired a vineyard manager, Michael Walsh, who had retired to the Central Coast after running a vineyard management company in Napa, Calif.

Hands-on approach
Cooper’s wine experience includes working in the cellar and operating a solar-powered wine lab out of a van. He said he’s looking forward to enhancing the school’s research endeavors while maintaining its hands-on teaching.

He also has been getting to know the needs of growers and winemakers in the Central Coast. In the short term, Cooper said his primary goals for the program are to focus on the needs of districts 7 and 8 and gear it toward educating students in production at the smaller, “mom and pop” level that’s common in the region.

Beyond that, Cooper said he’s looking to develop an applied research and innovation program as well as lead capital campaigns to fund a new research winery and building when the program becomes an independent department.

As part of the move toward establishing the program as a department, Cal Poly moved wine and viticulture out from under the purview of John Peterson, department head of Horticulture & Crop Science. Wayne Howard, a professor in the Agribusiness Department, ran the program on an interim basis for about six months before the school hired Cooper. The program is still part of the school’s College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences—but with 300 students, the school claims its wine and viticulture program is one of the largest in the nation.

Ran mobile, solar-powered lab
Cooper came to Cal Poly from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he taught for eight years before becoming an associate dean in the Division of Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences.

He received his first taste of wine while doing his post-doctoral work in the mid-1980s at Stanford University, where he took a class in wine appreciation. Cooper stayed interested in wine while at Santa Barbara and eventually began working part time at Tensley Wine in Buelton, Calif.

Cooper began helping in hospitality before doing some work in the cellar and eventually making some wine himself. “I never had more fun in my life,” he said.

As he grew to know the local wine scene, Cooper saw a need to employ his background as a plant scientist and provide a service to local winemakers. In 2010, he purchased a 2008 Sprinter 3500 van with a clean-diesel engine and installed a 600-watt photovoltaic solar system to power a modern wine lab. He dubbed his company Vanalytics and toured Santa Barbara wine country providing a local, green option for basic wine analysis.

Cooper said he happened to be browsing Winejobs.com when he stumbled on the listing for the director post at Cal Poly and decided to apply. His blend of an academic background and wine knowledge landed him the job of running the program.

Cooper said he hired two staffers to run Vanayltics since taking the job at Cal Poly.

Research goals
Part of his long-term vision for the program comes from Cooper’s research in the field of “bio-informatics.” He’s interested in extensive data mining of multiple inputs such as soil types, climates, molecular biology and chemistry to develop a database that would help guide vineyard and winemaking choices.

A prospective grower could enter his or her property conditions and receive a set of guidelines about variety and rootstock selection and even cultivation practices such as when to drop fruit and how much and what trellis system to use. These could be linked to consumer preference to help ensure a vineyard is not only productive but also commercially viable. “It’s kind of fantasy, pie in the sky, but that’s the ultimate goal,” he said.

Other research areas Cooper would like to see Cal Poly pursue are developing rootstocks that are resistant to disease, drought and salinity and examining grape cell wall chemistry. On the agribusiness side, he wants to continue to study market trends and successful brand development. The goal, Cooper said, is to tie all tracks into a coherent package and “focus research from the vineyard all the way to the consumer.”

Cooper said he’s still working on finding the right combination for Cal Poly’s future research between public, peer-reviewed projects and proprietary work with industry partners. He said the school will definitely be working with companies in the wine industry, but he’s just not yet sure how much of that will be directed for innovations that could result in a patent and profit. “I haven’t figured out the right mix,” he said.

The Cal Poly program has only been around since 2006, but Cooper said he knows the program’s alumni have been successful in the wine industry for decades because of the school’s multi-discipline, practical approach. “They’re not making wine in a 2-gallon carboy,” he said. “They learn by crushing a ton or half ton at the level of commercial production.”

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