When it comes to hands-on learning, Isabelle Straka doesn’t limit herself to the classroom. The second-year master’s student in Viticulture and Enology puts newly acquired skills to the test in producing her own wine label.
“It’s actually a funny story,” Straka said of her decision to launch Straka Wines in 2016. Her mother, a winemaker with 20 years of experience, would occasionally produce a small batch of viognier, a full-bodied white wine similar to Chardonnay.
“My dad just fell in love with it,” Straka said. “He would ask my mom to make it every day. It became a bit of a joke in my family.”
When a plot of viognier grapes became available in July 2016, Straka’s mother encouraged her to take it over, knowing it’d be the ideal opportunity to bring coursework to life.
“It’s been an incredible educational experience,” Straka said. Because the program’s pace aligns with a real life harvest timeline, “I was learning about fruit processing at the same time I was bringing grapes in. It was the perfect marriage of courses and a practical outlet for new knowledge.”
In addition to producing wine, Straka is learning critical lessons about starting a business — everything from choosing a cork to finding a market. In total, her plot yielded one ton of grapes and 65 cases of wine. Straka said she has sold all but five cases, but she counts the best reward as revealing the product to her father, from whom Straka Wines had been kept secret.
“He was so surprised; he couldn't even believe it,” she said. “It was really, really fun.”
It’s not Straka’s first experience with winemaking. Before attending University of California, Davis, she interned with Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, spent six months working in France, scouted for Napa Valley grower Michael Wolf and orchestrated tastings at Yountville’s K. Laz Wine Collection.
Though she might have succeeded in the industry on experience alone, Straka is pursuing her master’s degree to cultivate top-level skills in both cellar and vineyard work.
“I don't know if I had the confidence,” she said. “There's such a huge scientific component to [winemaking.] To have UC Davis right in your backyard...It's one of the best schools in the world for winemaking so it seemed kind of silly not to.”
Straka is completing an internship in Oakville as part of the viticulture and enology program’s plan II. She spends her free time gearing up for a second season of producing Straka Wines.