SRJC’s Shone Farm Vineyards, Venue for Learning
Sonoma-Marin Farm News, January 2011
Story by Tim Tesconi
Photographs by Michael Amsler
Fred and Susie Sedlacek, high-tech professionals from Menlo Park making the transition to Wine Country grape growers, grabbed their shears and joined fellow students in pruning grapevines at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm.
The Sedlaceks recently purchased a six acre vineyard in the Russian River Valley and are learning the ABC’s of wine grape production at Santa Rosa Junior College, which has a stellar reputation for providing students with the education and practical skills they need to produce top-tier wine grapes. The centerpiece of the students’ viticultural education is the college’s 70 acre vineyard, which is part of the 360-acre SRJC Shone Farm on Eastside Road between Forestville and Windsor in the Russian River Valley.
The Sedlaceks are enrolled in the Fall Vineyard Practices class where students range from vineyard owners to recent high school grads studying for careers as vineyard managers, grower representatives or viticultural technicians.
“This class has just blown us away. We are learning so much and the practical, hands on approach is exactly what we need as we make the transition from the high tech world to the wine world,” said Susie Sedlacek. She said the hands on experience in the SRJC vineyards make the class far superior to viticultural short courses at U.C. Davis where most of the course time is spent in the classroom --not in the vineyards.
Adds her husband Fred, “The more work we can do in our vineyard the less we will have to hire out.”
Under the direction of viticulture instructor and program director Dr. Merilark Padgett- Johnson and vineyard manager Mark Sanchietti of Sanchietti Farming LLC students like the Sedlaceks learn both the textbook and practical aspects of wine grape growing. During one recent session in the vineyards, Padgett-Johnson and Sanchietti guided students in making the judicious pruning cuts essential to produce a balanced, high quality crop of wine grapes. Pruning is one of the most important functions in the vineyards, a point driven home by Padgett- Johnson and Sanchietti.
“Now just indulge me. Wrap the twine twice around the cane and tie it with two knots so it doesn’t come loose,” Padgett- Johnson advises students as they tie the newly pruned canes to the trellis wire at the school’s vineyard.
Padgett-Johnson said the Shone Farm vineyard is literally an outdoor field laboratory for year around, hands-on learning. She believes it’s essential to put hand and eye together to actually experience what the brain absorbs in the classroom.
“Hands-on experience in the vineyard takes learning from two dimensions to three dimensions. My philosophy is that you have to go out and do it to learn it,” said Padgett- Johnson, who was hired in 2006 to teach and direct the viticulture program at SRJC. It’s a philosophy shared by Sanchietti, who as vineyard manager works closely with Padgett-Johnson to coordinate farming practices in the vineyards during the times when students can participate and observe.
“Merilark and I are in constant communication and have a great working relationship. We are both dedicated to providing a learning experience for the students and, at the same time, managing the vineyards in a professional manner that produces top quality grapes for our winery clients,” said Sanchietti, 27, who this fall fi nished his third harvest as the manager of the Shone Farm vineyards.
In June of 2008, Sanchietti was hired to manage the Shone Farm vineyards, which were in need of professional attention and lots of tender loving care. Yields were down and grape quality was in decline, prompting a re-evaluation of the vineyard’s management. It was decided that a professional was needed to maximize the quality potential of the grapes being produced from what many recognize as premium vineyards in the heart of the Russian River Valley.
“There was a sense of urgency,” Padgett- Johnson said of the mission to restore the school vineyards. Although the college’s vineyards are used as a learning laboratory for students, the wine grapes also generate income essential to maintaining the entire 360- acre farm, which also includes livestock, horses, a sustainable vegetable growing operation, olive grove ,apple orchard and small winery.
Padgett-Johnson said restoring the yields and quality of the school’s wine grape crop was key to maintaining relationships with winery clients and, ultimately, maintaining the vineyard’s profitability.
Said Padgett-Johnson, “Under Mark the vineyards have made a complete turnaround. Working with Mark is a dream come true.” As Trustee for the Santa Rosa Junior College, Terry Lindley is very pleased with the success of the vineyard operation at Shone Farm and the progress it has made as an educational venue and training farm.
“With 70 acres of grapes and new students coming in every semester and a new round of future graduates every two years, the Shone Farm vineyard required professional farming and maintenance,” said Lindley. “ Mark Sanchietti has been able to bring that. Mark is a young, innovative and bright young man who brings tremendous expertise to running a vineyard operation. His grasp of farming would be exceptional from someone who’s been in the business for decades.”
“As a professional, he’s technical, detailoriented and works well in business dealings and as a smart business negotiator. Mark is a wonderful representative to the vineyard and winery community for Santa Rosa Junior College,” Lindley added.
The dedication to hands-on learning and the collegial collaboration by Padgett-Johnson and Sanchietti are providing students with a valuable educational experience that is rare even at four-year agricultural colleges. The professional rapport between Padgett- Johnson and Sanchietti yields educational benefits for the viticulture students.
“This viticulture class has been an incredible learning experience for me,” said Tom Noggle, a hobby grape growerwinemaker from Sebastopol. He applies what he learns in the SRJC class to farming his one-third acre vineyard to produce high quality wine.
“At the end of the day, the reward is in the wine,” said Noggle.
Erin Leveroni, a first year student at Santa Rosa Junior College, is a fourth generation member of the Leveroni family of Sonoma. The daughter of Joe and Pat Leveroni, she has worked in the family’s 250 acres of vineyards but is expanding her knowledge of grape growing at SRJC.
“The hands-on, physical aspect of working in the vineyards keeps it exciting and interesting for me,” said Leveroni, who will go to New Zealand in February to work the winegrape harvest. “The time spent in the vineyards brings it all together with what we learn in the classroom.”
Padgett-Johnson and Sanchietti both stress the importance of providing students “real world” experiences so they can succeed in the wine business whether growing grapes for their own wines or to sell to wineries or managing vineyards. In Sonoma County, everything is geared to producing a top quality wine grape, a prevailing message in all of the SRJC viticulture classes. The real world aspect also includes cost management so the vineyard can earn a profi t, an essential component for staying in business.
The lessons of growing quality grapes were instilled in Sanchietti, a fourth generation Sonoma County farmer. As the son of growers Mel and Janeen Sanchiettti, Sanchietti grew up amid the vines and became part of the county’s close-knit farming community.
Sanchietti always knew he wanted to follow in the farming footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather who passed on their farming know-how to each succeeding generation. The Sanchietti family has been a respected farming fi xture on Irwin Lane in west Santa Rosa since 1919 when the family acquired farmland, which has been expanded over the last century.
Sanchietti established his own farming business, Sanchietti Farming LLC, in 2007 after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Today, he farms more than 200 acres of vineyards, assisted by his wife Jenny, who manages the offi ce and keeps the books for the farming company.
Sanchietti said the plan for the future is to plant an additional 10 acres of vineyards at Shone Farm, bringing the total to 80 acres. The vineyards are planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Merlot. In addition to managing the vineyards, Sanchietti also oversees the farming of the college’s two acre olive grove and two acre apple orchard.
The grapes from the Shone Farm vineyard are sold to six wineires – La Crema, Rodney Strong, Piper Sonoma, Ravenswood, Korbel and Benziger Family Winery, which makes a vineyard-designated wine from the college’s organically-farmed block of Sauvignon Blanc.
A small portion of the college’s wine grapes are made into wine and marketed under the SRJC Shone Farm label. It’s a campus-wide endeavor, with graphic arts students designing the label and marketing students handling promotion, advertising and public relations.
The wine is made by students in the Winery Practices Class, taught by Chris Wills. A small wine production facility is housed in the Warren Dutton Pavilion at Shone Farm. This fall, students made 300 cases of wine – Pinot noir, Syrah, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay from grapes grown in the college vineyards. The focus is on educating students about the ways of wine. “We make winemakers,” said Wills.The wine is sold through a broker and available on the shelves of stores like G & G Supermarkets, Traverso’s and Bottle Barn.
Padgett-Johnson said despite the downturn in the California wine industry, there is strong interest in the viticulture and wine programs at SRJC. Classes are full and students are eager to be part of the agricultural industry. SRJC students Brian Flores and Emmanuel Alcantara, both of Petaluma, and Eduardo Sosa of Santa Rosa are among those preparing for careers as vineyard managers or supervisors.
“I am learning a lot about grape growing and vineyard management,” said Sosa, who relishes the hard work. “I like to work outside using my hands.”
Before coming to Sonoma County, Padgett-Johnson was the instructor and coordinator of the Viticulture and Enology program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Barbara County. She was hired as instructor at Hancock College in 1999, the same year she completed her doctorate degree in plant biology from the University of California, Davis. She also holds two other degrees from U.C. Davis, a bachelor of science in plant science and a master of science degree in horticulture.
In addition to teaching at SRJC, Padgett- Johnson is the owner of Vineyard Solutions, a viticultural consulting business that she has operated since 1993.
Padgett-Johnson said there is incredible support from the wine industry for the college’s viticulture and wine program. And there is tremendous community pride in Shone Farm and its vineyard.
“We are so fortunate to have this valuable educational resource that is set in the scenic beauty of the Russian River Valley,” said Padgett-Johnson.
Farm Bureau Forum Will Cover Issues Related to Land, Water and Environment
Sonoma-Marin Farm News, January 2011
New monthly forum for Farm Bureau members
Sonoma County Farm Bureau is launching a monthly forum, starting Jan. 27, that will provide timely information on important topics related to natural resources, land use and environmental issues.
The monthly Farm Bureau Forum is free and open to all members of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The forums are a way for ranchers and landowners to stay informed on the regulations and issues that impact their land and livelihoods.
The forums also are a way to learn about the latest financial assistance and conservation programs available through USDA and the county’s Resource Conservation Districts. The forums will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on the last Thursday of each month at the Sonoma County Farm Bureau office, 3589 Westwind Blvd. in Santa Rosa. The format will include a key speaker and brief reports from representatives of a dozen agencies and organizations ranging from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the California Department of Fish and Game.
Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of California Farm Bureau’s Natural Resources and Environmental Division, is the featured speaker at the first forum on Jan. 27. Scheuring will discuss natural resource and environmental issues related to the North Coast and what California Farm Bureau is doing to represent members on those issues. The increased restrictions on water will be a key part of his presentation.
Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said the monthly forums are a way to assist landowners in navigating the complex web of regulations on land and resources enforced by federal, state and county agencies. It’s also a chance for Farm Bureau members to meet face-to-face with representatives of governmental agencies in an educational forum.
McCorvey said the forum is an expansion of the monthly meeting of Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee. He said the informational meetings are open to all Farm Bureau members interested in expanding their knowledge base and being better informed on topics and available resources. Farm Bureau members planning to attend the Jan. 27 forum are asked to send an e-mail response to info@sonomacountyfarmbureau. com . In the future, e-mail alerts will be sent to anyone who has attended a forum to inform them of future forums as well as subject matter and the featured speaker.
McCorvey said at each forum, a representative of a dozen agencies will be given five minutes to provide an update on key topics or works in progress at their particular agency. The agencies and organizations invited to the monthly meetings include the US Environmental Protection Agency, California Fish & Game, Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, North Coast Water Quality Control Board, National Resource Conservation Service, the USDA, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, Sotoyome-Santa Rosa Resource Conservation District, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Sonoma Land Trust.