Karley Curtis, an enology senior from Easton, was drawn to Fresno State so she could channel her passion for science into a lifelong career. However, the Jordan College honors research cohort member, had to make a slight detour from her initial path as a pre-nursing major.
“I loved my chemistry course that first semester, but realized that the hospital setting wasn’t the best fit for me,” Curtis said. “Luckily, my dad suggested enology, and I was able to quickly shift to another of Fresno State’s top programs. Constantly checking on the wine during the fermentation process involves a lot of the same training as we monitor various pH and acidity levels and potentially add other things to hone it to perfection.”
Her appreciation for wine grapes started at an early age as she played in a neighbor’s vineyard. Its career potential took root while traveling with her father, Brett, on his work calls. The Fresno State agricultural business alumnus works as an irrigation consultant and created systems for vineyards throughout the Central Valley and Central Coast.
Now as the Fresno State Winery’s lead student assistant, Curtis will have a chance to help extend its reputation as a top collegiate winery — a standing further solidified after the winery earned five medals at the recent San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association wine competition.
Fresno State claimed double gold medals for its 2018 Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon wines; a gold medal for its 2019 Albariño; and silver medals for its 2018 Alicante Bouschet and 2019 Chardonnay.
“This was definitely our best showing in 10 years at this competition,” said Kevin Smith, winery marketing and sales director. “It also reflects the improved quality of our wines, thanks to the hard work that our students are putting in, and the fine fruit our winemaker, Tom Montgomery, is sourcing for us.”
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay came from grapes harvested in the Napa and Sonoma areas through industry and alumni contacts. The Albariño fruit was harvested from the nearby Saviez Vineyards on the San Joaquin River, as well as Alicante Bouschet grapes from the Papagni Vineyards near Madera.
“Among all the awards, I’m extra proud of the Barbera since it is from the Fresno State vineyard,” said Tom Montgomery, the campus winemaker. “Other California areas have had national recognition for a long time, and now the San Joaquin Valley is becoming equally well known for its own types of varietals that excel specifically in our weather and soil conditions.”
Several of these wines were also recognized earlier this year by the San Francisco Chronicle, which awarded a gold medal to the 2019 Chardonnay and silver medals to the 2018 Alicante Bouschet, President’s Reserve Barbera and Sargent Zinfandel wines.
Looking ahead, the campus winery hopes to add more wine awards from two international wine contests that will be held later this year: the San Francisco International Wine Challenge and Sommelier Challenge.
All of the campus wines are currently available at the Fresno State Winery website and are equally popular with its wine club. Members receive 20% off wines through three, four-bottle shipments throughout the year, as well as special access to limited edition wines and special events.
Members might have noticed that a select group of campus wines now brandish black labels. The redesign showcases wines that are initially prioritized for wine club members for three months after bottling. Any remaining wines are then available online, at the Gibson Farm Market, area stores, and fine restaurants that now include Harris Ranch.
As new lots of grapes arrive at the winery this summer and fall, Curtis will use her winery and lab training as a member of the Jordan College Honors Research Cohort. The fifth-generation agriculturist will assist enology faculty member Dr. Kristy Sun to study Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and how vine canopy treatments and aging affect wine anthocyanin content.
Curtis, a former Washington Union High School valedictorian and Fresno State dancer, is unphased by the workload since she has always successfully juggled multiple interests, and still works as a youth dance coach.
“It’ll be a busy year, but it will be so rewarding,” she said. “Being able to walk from classes and lab to the winery and vineyard next door is such an exciting balance and I can’t wait.”