Spotlight on: Students of the Wine Industry

By: Lauren Voigt

The 2018 Silent Auction is coming up on March 17 and I need your help!

I’m pleased to be working with the Elmer Swenson Scholarship Fund (ESSF) to solicit donation items for a silent auction upcoming in March as part of “Spring Wine Fest”, expected to host over 1200 local wine lovers.

Register here to contribute something for auction.

It has been said, the more you learn about wine – the more you realize you don’t know.  Over the next several months, we’ll be putting the spotlight on how local students, educational programs, career opportunities, and professionals are shaping the industry.

The Elmer Swenson Scholarship Fund (ESSF) was established in 2004 in honor of one of the founding fathers of cold climate viticulture, Elmer Swenson.  Established after Swenson’s passing in 2004 by the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA), scholarships are awarded annually to a select handful of recipients “in recognition of demonstrated interest, aptitude, and creativity in advancing cold climate viticulture and wine making”, according to the ESSF.

In February, the scholarship was awarded to four students dedicating their education to viticulture and wine making. Here are their stories, and how they plan to affect change in the industry.


Soon Li Teh U of M

Image Credit: Soon Li Teh

Soon Li Teh, Malaysia

Ph.D in Applied Plant Science  (Plant Breeding & Genetics)
University of Minnesota est. Dec. 2017

Why the U of M?
It is widely known for its Plant Breeding and Genetics programs. I applied to attend following my undergraduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the encouragement of several of my undergraduate professors.

Top highlights of your college career?
Teaching an undergraduate plant breeding course, as I have a strong passion for student learning, and the ways the course content are imparted for effective instruction.  I also relish every chance I have had to inform and educate the public — I have been provided several opportunities to publicly present my research, opportunities typically reserved for University professors.

What are your post-graduation plans?
Truthfully, I don’t know! I would like to continue my plant breeding journey in the U.S. but am realistic of how difficult it can be for an international student to remain after graduation. I am open to any options where fruit breeding research opportunities are available!

An opportunity that combines my passions for plant breeding and research would be ideal — being a university professor, industry scientist, or plant breeder in a non-profit organization.  Whether or not I remain in viticulture depends on job opportunities, but my skills are widely adaptable to other areas of fruit research.

How do you hope to affect change in the industry?
My thesis research is in identifying genes for resistance to powdery mildew, a major fungal disease affecting fruit crops worldwide — including grapes, mostly controlled by fungicide applications. The goal would be to develop grape varieties with genetic resistance to powdery mildew to control the disease without fungicide use. This will not only reduce input costs for farmers/growers, but also provide a healthier and more sustainable grape-growing environment.

You can learn more about Teh through this U of M: Student Spotlight


Jean Riesterer-Loper Horticulture

Image Credit: Jean Riesterer-Loper

Jean Riesterer-Loper, Milton, WI

MS in Horticulture
University of Wisconsin-Madison, est. Dec 2017


Why Horticulture?
I was working agronomy and wanted to diversify my experience — I’ve actually wanted to pursue a MS for 20+ years now! I talked with several professors in my fields of interest about options, and settled on Horticulture.

What has surprised you the most about your education?
I’ve been a teaching assistant for a few semesters now but before starting I pictured students being on their smartphones during class — this hasn’t been a problem, and students are very respectful.  Working as a teaching assistant has also honed my public speaking, people skills, and confidence in general.

What courses have you enjoyed the most?  
Soil Science taught me that our soil is not just dirt — its key to everything, and we need to treat it with the utmost respect! In addition, Plant Physiology — I never knew how much plants can do!

Image Credit: Jean Riesterer-Loper / Making Raisins

What would you like to do following graduation?
I hope to work in the southern Wisconsin/Madison area, assisting with horticulture gardens, consulting with viticulturalists, work in Extension or some form of education.

How do you hope to affect change in the industry?
I want to encourage people to grow food in a sustainable manner, and in general appreciate plants more.  My Table Grape research is looking at growing varieties locally (many developed by Elmer Swenson), both for backyard growers and larger growers.  It’s been really fun getting the word out and letting people taste these fantastic grapes, and their raisins, too!

Image Credit: Grace Watson

Grace Watson, “Waconia Wine Country”, Minnesota

B.S. in Plant Science and B.A. in Spanish & Portuguese Studies
University of Minnesota, Est. Dec 2017

Why Plant Science?
I was considering a degree in Food Science, but found Plant Science while looking through CFANS (College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences) degrees. After taking a course in Plant Propagation, I felt a connection to the industry. I had previous interest in grapes after working at a winery, and looked toward the Grape Breeding and Enology Extension.  After contacting Matt Clark, PhD; the program director —  I started work at the U’s Horticultural Research Center with grapes.

What has surprised you the most about the program?
How connected everything is with the education, science, and business sides of everything! The information that I’ve learned in classes carries over to multiple realms of science and business. I’ve also appreciated how supportive the professors, mentors, and colleagues at the U of M are.

What courses have you enjoyed the most?
Most of my Plant Science courses such as Plant Propagation, Vines and Wines, and also General Biology and Biochemistry have been my favorite. I enjoy learning about the functions and nutrients that plants and animals need to survive, and how each can supplement that for another.  I also enjoyed the combination of science and art in my Vines and Wines course.  Who doesn’t like to sip some wine after a long day of classes and get credit for it?

Where do you plan to work after graduation?
I’m considering graduate school — but would like to work in an industry where I can apply the many things I have learned in my courses to my own work, perhaps start my own vineyard some day.

How do you hope to affect change in the industry?
We just found the genetic markers for phylloxera resistance this last year, so hopefully we can implement that into the breeding process in the next few years and start releasing more phylloxera resistant cold hardy wine grapes.

Jenna Brady, u of m

Image Credit: Genna Brady

Jenna Brady, Maple Grove Minnesota

MS in Food Science
University of Minnesota, est. Dec. 2017

Why the University of Minnesota?
I attended the U of M as an undergraduate, completing my a B.S. in Food Science during which time I worked as a Research Assistant, and was contacted to join the masters program by my research advisor. I was pleased to accept!

What is your area of focus for your program?
My thesis involves studying the sensory properties of white cold-climate wines.

What do you hope to do following graduation?
I would love to stay in the Twin Cities area and work for a local winery.

How do you hope to affect change in the industry?
I hope to continue studying cold-climate wines in terms of its sensory properties, and ultimately contribute to the growth of purchases, and love of these wines by consumers.

The 2018 Silent Auction is coming up on March 17 and I need your help!

I’m pleased to be working with the Elmer Swenson Scholarship Fund (ESSF) to solicit donation items for a silent auction upcoming in March as part of “Spring Wine Fest”, expected to host over 1200 local wine lovers.

Register here to contribute something for auction.



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