Student Spotlight: Cooper Niswonger

Imagine tasting randomly selected wines and having to decipher what type of wine it is, what country it is from, the varietal of grapes and vintage year.

Cooper Niswonger, a Sonoma State University senior, did just that when she won first place at a wine tasting event held by the San Francisco Chapter of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with Sonoma State’s Wine Business Institute.

As the first place winner, she won an all-inclusive trip to France where she will get to explore the French wine country and experience private tours and tastings.

“I really want to learn French and this is an awesome reason to learn a second language,” said Niswonger. “Who knows, I may never come back.” 

Originally from Bakersfield, Niswonger moved to Sonoma County and her interest in wine soon followed. She began tasting wines with her family and switched her major to business after transferring to this campus. 

She is now a part of the Wine Sense club, employed at Schug Carneros Estate Winery and interns at Vintage Wine Estates.

Before competing in San Francisco, two preliminary rounds were held on campus. A written test and blind tasting determined which students would be able to attend the finals in San Francisco at “La Soiree,” a gastronomy and wine show fundraiser put on by the French-American Chamber of Commerce.

The test included questions about wine-making practices, marketing concepts, basic wine knowledge, as well as laws and wine regulations in America and France. 

Niswonger competed against other student finalists Garrett Hanks and Lauryn Mitrovich, the current president of Wine Sense. 

Niswonger credits her win to the courses she has taken at the university, as well as her experience tasting wine through Wine Sense, work and personal interest.

Wine Sense is a club on campus that contacts local wineries and coordinates tasting events on campus. The participating wineries donate wine for tastings, discuss their wines, winery history and answers any questions participants may have. 

All students with an interest in wine are welcome to attend meetings. Niswonger is currently the vice president of the executive board of Wine Sense.

Niswonger correctly identified a 2012 Chenin Blanc from Dry Creek Valley and a 2011 Syrah from France. 

Her technique when tasting the unknown wines involved swirling her glass to release the smell of the wine’s aroma, taking in the color, tasting small sips and disposing of the rest so that the wine reached all areas of her tongue.

Before the contest she began purchasing French wines and setting up small tastings at home to familiarize herself with the qualities of French wines.

This is the second year that this wine tasting competition has occurred. Ray Johnson, director of the Wine Business Institute, was approached by Jacques Brix, vice president of Wines & Vines, a monthly wine magazine, to create a wine tasting event along with the French-American Chamber of Commerce. Johnson plans to have this event occur again next fall.

“It is so wonderful to watch our students take the starring role and have the opportunity to showcase their talents,” said Johnson. “They were spectacular. Cooper really knocked it out of the park. I am so happy for all of them.”

Niswonger’s fully paid five-day trip to Beaune, France must occur within the first six months of 2014. 

She has decided to wait until after finals to begin planning when her trip will occur. 

After graduating in the spring, Niswonger aspires to enter into the marketing field, preferably within a winery where she will be able to grow over the years.

“We live in the heart of some of the best wineries in the world,” said Niswonger. “I want to start taking the next steps.”