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Teaching the science of winemaking at Santa Rosa Junior College

People come to fall in love with the wine industry for a number of reasons. For some, it’s the sip of a crisp chardonnay or a big and bold cabernet sauvignon. For others, it’s the gorgeous views of the vineyards or the ambiance and camaraderie of a nice dinner with friends.

For Kevin Sea, it was more about the chemistry.

Sea came to that realization as he worked as an audit manager for Deloitte & Touche LLP in San Francisco during the mid-to-late 1980s.

“I loved it, but it wasn’t my calling. I decided that wine and science was my calling,” Sea said.

So, like many who come into the industry, Sea made a career change that led him to Santa Rosa Junior College’s wine studies program.

He got a master’s degree in enology from UC Davis and later completed his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA. He also balanced the more staid academic experience with the sweaty cellar work and sunny days in the vineyard.

It’s the wine industry, after all, and there is only so much one can learn in a lab. Sea worked as a cellar worker at Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa and Vidal Winery in New Zealand as well as serving as the harvest enologist for Beaulieu Vineyard in St. Helena.

The 57-year-old Sonoma resident in now the instructor and coordinator for SRJC’s wine studies program, replacing former coordinator Bob Fraser last semester.

“It’s so attractive to go from growing the grapes all the way through the high-tech wineries,” Sea remarked in an interview in his small office on campus.

Sea was specifically brought to SRJC for his expertise in the science of winemaking. His master’s thesis focused on the production of hydrogen sulfide during the fermentation of wine. In his doctorate, he used yeast to examine mutations in an enzyme linked to Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The recipe for wine is simple: grapes and yeast that converts the fruit’s sugars into alcohol. While much research has been conducted into grapes, yeast has lagged until recently with the advent of genetic sequencing at low cost, he said.

Work of the yeast

The research goes to a vital question: How do sauvignon blanc grapes turn into wine that smells of passion fruit?

“It’s only the result of the yeast having done its work,” Sea said. “We are starting to understand why yeast do that, and why some yeast do that more than others, and under which conditions they do it more. We are just in the infancy of the work.”

Traditionally, winemakers have used their noses to determine which yeast to use in fermentation, especially whether it should be cultured or wild. “The (scientific) instruments are getting there where they are about as good as our nose,” he said.

Sea acknowledges that chemistry is probably not at the forefront for the 320 students who take courses in the wine studies program. (He is slated to teach four classes this semester, and possibly one additional course.)

But he said he hopes his enthusiasm catches on with his students so they understand that winemaking is much more than the grapes, from the corks to the barrels to the bottling. SRJC realizes the distinction by maintaining separate wine studies and viticulture programs.

Chris Crispo said he enjoyed taking one of Sea’s classes last semester because Sea made the chemistry portion easy to understand, assuaging any fear that Crispo would have to scramble back to high school and try to remember the long-forgotten periodic table of elements.

“Kevin is a chemist by background, but you didn’t need a chemistry prerequisite,” Crispo said. “He made it digestible.”

The class was beneficial because Crispo and his wife, Audrey Bush, took over the family vineyards three years ago, a 23-acre spot in the Russian River Valley where they grow pinot noir and chardonnay. They take courses through the viticulture program primarily to obtain a certificate, but Crispo said Sea’s class opened his eyes to what his winery partners go through in the process of turning grapes into wine.

Sam Heidecke also enjoyed Sea’s classes last semester. A former Marine who is attending SRJC on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Heidecke said he was planning to obtain an associate’s degree in business administration and then transfer to a four-year university for an undergraduate degree. But Heidecke said his interest was piqued by the wine studies program. He later became hooked, crediting Sea’s introduction to enology class for his decision to switch his major to enology.

“I started the semester as a person who would choose a beer over wine most of the time,” Heidecke said in an email, adding that now he is “someone who loves a good glass of wine.”

The SRJC programs are a key unheralded component of the local wine industry, which provides $13 billion to the Sonoma County economy. Unlike the more well-known UC Davis and Fresno State viticulture and enology programs, SRJC courses attract a more varied student demographic. Students are attracted by the much lower tuition and less structured program structure, perfect for career changers as well as those who hope to transfer to four-year universities.

“It’s all across the board,” Sea said of his students’ demographics.

He also acknowledges that he has some advantages that make his job much easier, such as access to key industry officials and their plants, including taking his classes to cork maker M A Silva Corks USA and barrel maker Tonnellerie Radoux USA Inc., both Santa Rosa-based companies.

Shone Farm

The gem of SRJC’s program is Shone Farm, a 70-acre vineyard where students learn to grow grapes and turn them into wine under its own label.

“I taught intro to enology at Shone Farm,” Sea said. “On Day One we said hello for a few minutes, and then we are in the vineyard.”

He hopes to grow the wine studies program so that industry officials think immediately of SRJC when they are looking to fill a position. This includes possibly offering some continuing education classes in Spanish or a course on equipment maintenance or sustainable winemaking.

“We want to provide that kind of pipeline,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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