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St. Helena High School senior wins national FFA award for viticulture project

St. Helena High School senior wins national FFA award for viticulture project

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Liesl Wolf Heinemann can tell you everything you need to know about the smell of mildew in wine. Never mind that she isn’t even old enough to drink it yet.

Wolf Heinemann, president of St. Helena FFA and a senior at St. Helena High School, performed a research project that won the national championship for her division in the Food Products and Processing Systems category on Oct. 27 at the National FFA Agriscience Fair, held virtually this year.

“I put a lot of work into this project, so seeing it pay off is really rewarding,” she said.

As part of her Advanced Ag Systems class, Wolf Heinemann researched important contemporary topics in viticulture and decided to study how much mold or mildew consumers can tolerate in wine.

Before the pandemic, Wolf Heinemann invited 30 members of the community to St. Helena High School, where they sniffed wines that were tainted with varying levels of mildew. School rules prohibited tasting, so participants could only use their noses.

The answer, she found: 50% of participants were able to detect a difference when the mildew threshold was at 15%.

She collaborated with researchers at Fresno State University and honed her paper at regional FFA field days. When she submitted it to the state competition, it placed first in her division.

From there, a national committee judged whether it deserved bronze, silver, gold or — for the most exceptional papers — a shot at the national championship. A paper Wolf Heinemann wrote last year got a gold ranking. This time, the judges placed her viticulture paper one notch higher than that, putting her one step away from a national championship.

Then she was notified by email that her paper was one of the top three in the country.

“That’s when the excitement really hit,” she said.

At this point Wolf Heinemann ordinarily would have presented her paper at the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis. Due to the pandemic, she joined the conference via Zoom and found out she’d won first place.

Word got around quickly. While she was away, her ag teachers left balloons and other decorations on her house.

“They’re really great people who’ve been super-supportive through this whole process,” she said. “They’d do this for anyone in the chapter because they know how hard we all work.”

Judy Aschwanden, Wolf Heinemann’s Advanced Ag Systems teacher, said the paper probably stood out to judges because it deals with a topic that’s currently of great interest in the field of viticulture and because it piggybacked on similar research conducted at Fresno State.

“The information gathered in her study can be useful in industry at this time. It’s very pertinent,” Aschwanden said.

Wolf Heinemann is in the middle of the college application process and plans to study wine and viticulture.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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The St. Helena High School Ag Department was named Overall Outstanding Ag Department by the California Agricultural Teachers' Association, and St. Helena FFA was named Outstanding FFA Chapter by the California FFA Association.

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