A customized menu greets the UNO visitors at Gallo Family VineyardsUNO alumnus Dan Michael, marketing director for Gallo Family Vineyards, leads students through a tasting at William Hill Estate Winery in Napa Valley.UNO alumnus Barry Wiss gives a guided tour of Trinchero Napa Valley Winery, where he is the vice president of trade relations.
Over the course of almost four decades, UNO’s Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration has developed one of the leading academic programs in its field. One obvious source of Kabacoff’s status is the success of its graduates—and the willingness of alumni to give back something meaningful to the school that helped launch their careers.

Take, for example, Kim Wiss, Barry Wiss and Dan Michael, all of whom came out of Kabacoff and found their way to Northern California, where they’ve become leaders in the international wine industry. Each studied with Professor Harsha Chacko, who has been with the program since 1982. (Kim and Barry, who are married, met in Chacko’s class.) Chacko reconnected with the Wisses, and Dan Michael, in 2006 after reading an article about Kim and Barry in the Times-Picayune.

Soon after, the wheels started to turn. “We wanted to see what we could do to support UNO, which took such a devastating hit in the storm,” says Michael, who serves as marketing director for Gallo Family Vineyards. “In an hour’s meeting with Dr. Chacko, Barry and I started to frame a program where he could bring a group of students to California and we’d give them an immersion in the wine industry—not only for the educational benefit, but also to say, ‘you should be considering this is a viable career opportunity.’ ” Thus was born UNO’s annual week-long California wine trip, which each summer brings 12 students to the Napa and Sonoma wine country as a lead-in to Chacko’s “Wines of the World” class.

Chacko and Kabacoff Chef Ricardo Fredericks take part in the trip, which provides an academically rigorous experience for students. On an 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily schedule, the students visit places like Trinchero Napa Valley Winery (where Barry Wiss is vice president of trade relations). They tour vineyards and receive deep and expert instruction on subjects such as viticulture (grape-growing), winemaking, wine marketing, mastering the palate, and food-and-wine pairing. “It brings the books and theories to life,” Chacko says.

This hands-on experience makes the complex and sometimes intimidating world of wine far more accessible for students. “It’s not easy,” says Kim Wiss, business manager at Antica Napa Valley, which also participates in the wine trip and is owned by a 26th-generation, 627-year-old Italian wine producer. “There’s a whole vocabulary that goes along with the wine industry. You hear the terminology, but when you see Napa and Sonoma, it all clicks in your head.”

Students on the 2011 wine trip sat with celebrated winemaker Ralf Holdenreid at Gallo’s William Hill Estate Winery to learn first-hand about the creative process of making wine. Trinchero’s Barry Wiss took the students through his own “Mastering

Wine Aromas” presentation. And Gina Gallo, E. & J. Gallo’s famed chief winemaker, led them through a wine-blending exercise that resulted in the students creating and bottling their own “UNO blended” wine to bring home. “By the end of the week, they’re much more comfortable with wine and their own vocabulary, perception and ability to taste,” says Dan Michael. “Combined with Dr. Chacko’s class, it’s accelerated learning.”

The trip is also geared toward preparing the students for the very difficult Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam at the end of the semester. Those students who pass the exam receive a crucial and meaningful credential that will help them start their careers, whether in wine or other hospitality-related industries. Wine has gone truly mainstream in recent years, becoming America’s most popular alcoholic beverage. “Wine has become a very important part of profitability in any food and beverage operation,” Barry Wiss says. “Some level of accreditation is now expected.”

At the end of the week, the students give something back to all the generous wine professionals they’ve met in California. With some guidance from UNO’s Chef Fredericks, they prepare and serve an authentic New Orleans meal for their hosts. In 2011 the students made turtle soup, jambalaya, crab cakes, white chocolate bread pudding and other local delicacies for 40 to 50 guests using ingredients flown in from New Orleans. “It’s our favorite meal of the year,” Dan Michael says. Kim Wiss concurs: “When the students are here, everybody falls in love with them. I think it’s that Southern hospitality.”

As far as the students are concerned, it’s the least they can do. The trip is made possible by generous subsidies from the Wisses’ and Michael’s employers. And Trinchero sponsors the students’ CSW preparation and taking of the exam, including a seven-hour pre-test review and printed study guide. But the lessons of the trip are many and varied. Just ask student Patrick Cullen, who went on last year’s wine trip and recently passed the CSW exam. “I’m so appreciative of the time they gave us,” Cullen says of his hosts in California. “Whatever industry I end up in, I hope to give back to UNO one day.”