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Opportunity Uncorked: A Mentor Externship in Wine Country

December 1, 2011

California winemaker Jeff Pipes '83 admits that he wasn’t sold on Carleton’s Mentor Externship program at first. Having a student work with him and live with his family sounded like a big commitment.

"Wine is an intense and competitive industry," explains Pipes, who owns Pipestone Vineyards with his wife, Florence Wong '84. "I’m incredibly busy. Having an extra person around to teach and train takes time."

But once he began reading applications from eager Carleton students, Pipes couldn't help but be impressed. "There were 30 applications, and I could have happily hired every one of them. They were all great. The hardest part was narrowing it down to just one."

That "one" turned out to be Amelia Harris '12, an Environmental Studies major with a special emphasis on food and agriculture—a perfect fit for Pipestone Vineyards, where Pipes and Wong strive to practice sustainable agriculture and environmentally friendly farming.

Their extern was a fit in another way, too, as Pipes discovered during the student's first dinner with his family. "Amelia and my wife and I—we were finishing each other's sentences," he says with a laugh. "My 15-year-old daughter sat there with her mouth gaping open. She said, 'Dad, she’s just like us!' I guess a Carl is a Carl, at any age."

Amelia Harris agrees. "Jeff and Florence made it so easy," she says. "Living in somebody else's home has the potential to be awkward, but they were so welcoming that I felt like family."

Eager to make the most of her externship, Harris brought her Carleton curiosity to bear on the everyday work of operating a vineyard. "I constantly asked questions. Every night before bed, I'd think about the day and write down more questions. Jeff was so open and forthcoming about his life, the vineyard, and the wine business."

That business demands more than genteel conversations in the wine-tasting room, Harris quickly learned. She power-hosed sediment out of wine barrels. She learned to drive Pipes's tractor and his team of draft horses. She mowed the vineyard, served tables at wine dinners, and spent hours working in the hot sun among the grapevines.

"I taught Amelia about canopy manipulation," Jeff Pipes says. "She pulled leaves and positioned shoots to achieve the right amount of sunlight and air movement. Great wine happens on the vine, you know. Light and air, that's the secret of wine."

Both Pipes and Harris wholeheartedly recommend the Mentor Externship program to other alumni and students.

"Don’t hesitate," Pipes says. "My experience was fantastic. You'll have a wonderful time, especially if you take care to choose a student like Amelia with prior experience and interest in what you do—someone who's pursuing a passion, not just collecting an experience."

"Absolutely," Harris says. "It's so valuable to create professional relationships like this. I now know someone in a field I'm interested in, and I have a real taste of what the business entails. That will be really beneficial to me in deciding what to do after Carleton.

"Put yourself out there for a week or two. If you throw yourself into the experience, it's so rewarding."

We’ll drink to that.

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