By AnneMarie Hunter
“Just like life, winemaking has lots of unknowns.”
— Lorena Zurita
Lorena Zurita never gives up.
Though her path has been paved with challenges, this Washington State University senior has persisted in the pursuit of her goals.
Zurita, 24, will graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor of science in viticulture and enology and minors in horticulture and business administration. Resilience, positivity, and a deep connection to the earth have forged the direction of her education and life.
Lorena’s parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico before she was born. They settled in the Tri-Cities area and found work in the area’s orchards and vineyards. Lorena’s life began in Othello and, serendipitously, is the place where her winemaking career is unfolding.
As a child, Lorena discovered this land firsthand.
“My parents couldn’t afford childcare, so they took me to work with them,” she said.
A home away from home, Lorena grew to understand and respect this unique terrain. However, work in the orchards was arduous and not a future Lorena’s mother, Angelina, envisioned for her.
“After working in the heat all day, my mom would come home exhausted with blisters on her hands and feet,” Lorena said. “She barely ate from morning to night, and her body ached all the time.
“She didn’t want that life for my brothers or me and us. She told us, ‘I want you to get a good job and not do what I’m doing.’ She never had the opportunity to pursue higher education and encouraged us to attend college.”
PAINFUL LOSS AND RENEWED HOPE
Before she could pursue that dream for higher education, tragedy befell the Zurita family.
“During my junior year in high school, my brother, Alonso, passed away,” Lorena said. “Our lives completely changed. My mother became ill and I had to take care of her.”
Four months after losing her brother, Lorena’s parents divorced.
“My parents’ divorce made it even harder for my mom to maintain the house and keep up with bills,” she said. “So, after school every day, I headed to work in the apple orchards. During these moments, I wished I was older because I wanted to help my mom even more.”
Through these painful passages, Lorena made the choice to look forward with hope.
“The night my brother passed away I couldn’t sleep, and I watched the sunrise that morning,” she said. “I thought about how other students were getting ready to go to school and would be walking the halls laughing and getting ready to learn, while I was going through the worst moment of my life.
“I will never heal from my brother’s loss. But I learned that, after time, I’ll have better days. My struggles have made me look at life this way.”
A SUPER MOM WORKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Lorena graduated from high school in 2015 and enrolled at Columbia Basin College (CBC). Just before enrolling at CBC, she also gave birth to her daughter, Zyrie, who is now five years old.
A quarter away from completing her associate’s degree, financial difficulties nearly stalled Lorena’s education. Rather than leave school, she found a night-shift job in a potato processing plant where she worked 12-hour rotating shifts as a quality-control analyst.
“My mom took care of my daughter while I worked nights, and I was with her while taking online classes during the day. There were times I was on the verge of dropping out because it was so much for me to handle, but I continued to push through.
“One day, I was taking an online quiz at home, and Zyrie, who was three months old, started to cry. Instead of panicking, I just picked her up and fed her while I finished my quiz. This moment really made me feel like a super mom. My mom’s struggle also motivated me to finish my education, and I thought about those memories every time I felt like giving up.”
In 2019, Lorena took the next step toward the promise she made to her future.
“After more than a year and a half at the processing plant, I decided to quit and go back to school full-time. It was a scary decision to make since I financially support my daughter and myself,” she said. “But I knew it was something I had to do, so I could provide us with a better future. I was constantly worried about the ‘what ifs,’ but I tried my best to look beyond those and remain positive.”
Lorena’s older brother, Hector, who graduated from WSU in 2016 and is now a lawyer, was her advocate.
“Hector was the first one in my family to go to college and he did it amazingly well,” she said. “Watching him overcome his obstacles made me want to do the same.”
Hector also suggested Lorena look into WSU’s Viticulture and Enology program.
“He said, ‘I think WSU has a wine program,’ so I looked it up,” she said. “After reading about the program, I knew this was a career I’d enjoy.”
That fall, Lorena enrolled at WSU as a full-time student.
ALWAYS CURIOUS AND QUESTIONING THE ‘WHAT IFS’
Lorena’s resilience and positive outlook are matched by curiosity sparked in the orchards and vineyards that framed her childhood experiences.
Today, it is integral to her studies at WSU.
“I’ve always questioned how everything was made,” she said. “When I learned grapes were used for making wine, I was amazed and wanted to find out more. I was inspired to learn how to properly take care of vineyards, how to make wine, and the business aspect of it as well.”
Her passion for questions—and finding solutions—led her to a research opportunity at WSU.
During a Blended Learning winemaking class last fall, she assisted Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling with his malolactic diacetyl experiment. The intent of the experiment was to evaluate the impact of yeast and malolactic bacteria strains on the formation of diacetyl, a chemical compound that impacts wine flavor.
Before this experience, Lorena had not considered winemaking research as a potential career.
“I didn’t know I was going to be part of a project like this and, after an introduction to the research aspect, research is definitely getting my attention,” she said. “I didn’t realize there was so much science behind all of this.”
Lorena’s research experience has sparked more curiosity, along with a desire to delve into challenges that hamper successful wine production.
“As a single parent, I’m always worried about the ‘what ifs’ and I think about what I’ll do if things go wrong, so I have backup plans. Just like life, winemaking has a lot of unknowns and things can potentially go wrong. So, you adjust to achieve the goal.”
WORTH THE INVESTMENT
Early in her program, Lorena was awarded several scholarships, including the Cougar Commitment Grant, the Dr. Charles and Helen Skinner Memorial Scholarship, and the Charles W. and Beatrice M. Nagel Scholarship. She is also part of the Invest in Cougs program and received the distinguished Woodinville Wine Country Scholarship for Diversity in Viticulture and Enology.
The scholarship support has been essential to Lorena continuing her studies.
“I was barely paying the bills on time and considered taking another break, but once I received the scholarships, I knew could finish the program and be with Zyrie,” she said. “The scholarships inspired me to push through the hard times.
“It’s important when your family believes in you, but the scholarships meant others believed in me, too. The support made me realize my education is worth an investment.”
Nearing her victory lap, finding answers to winemaking obstacles are among Lorena’s potential plans for the future.
With her degree, a wide spectrum of careers is available to this accomplished Coug. Next summer, she hopes to attain a winemaking internship.
“I can’t wait to get more hands-on learning before possibly starting my own small winery or vineyard,” she said. “I’d like to gain experience in vineyards and work at a couple of wineries before I take that huge step.”
Learn more about supporting WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program.