Silicon Valley Tour – Day 3

Day 3 of the Brocade sponsored Silicon Valley Spring Break Tour was a day of atypical engineering applications in Northern California for the group of 15 students. Michigan Tech alumna Debra Campbell, Construction Program Manager for the National Park Service Service was first to treat the group to a personalized, behind-the-scenes, historical and engineering tour of Alcatraz Island. Stabilization efforts under the island’s largest structures are a unique challenge for engineering efforts given constraints of location and environment. The island’s shift from diesel fuel to alternative energy is an additional engineering challenge. NPS employees helped guide the group through cell block tours and a variety of off-tour experiences and insight to the island’s varied uses over the years.

An equally interesting tour was given by Tim Porter, son of Michigan Tech alum and entrepreneur Tom Porter, who toured the group though the Porter Family Vineyard in Napa. The Porter’s unique application of mesh network, remote sensing, and automated controls of everything from vine to aging is novel in the wine industry. Successes and failures of implementing bleeding edge technology in this historically hands-on industry has presented unique challenges and produced most stellar wine.

The student’s impressions of both are below:

Tuesday we had to be up bright and early in order to meet with the National Park Service down by the pier in order to catch the first boat of the day out to Alcatraz. The ride out to the island was just amazing; the view of the city and it’s surroundings along with the sunrise over the bay was simply breath taking. First we were given a brief history of the island where I learned the island was originally used as a fort before being turned into a military prison and then later changing purposes again into the federal prison that most people know it for. Once we got to the island we started off with the standard audio tour which allowed us to learn a lot about the prison and it’s history The audio tour included viewpoints from both some of the guards and ex-inmates giving us insight on some of the inmates accommodations as well as the security practices the prison implemented. I thought it was very interesting to learn about all the different aspects of the prison. Once the audio tour was over we met back up with the National Park Service representatives for some more exclusive access. We were privileged enough to get a private tour of the lighthouse, the citadel basement, the the batteries used to power the island, and the new industry building where the “good” prisoners were able to spend some time working instead of spending their whole day in their cell. While they were all great to experience the lighthouse was my personal favorite. The view from the top of the tower was insurmountable. Once we were done touring the island we caught the boat back to the main land where they also provided us some sandwiches and snacks for lunch. Needless to say they treated us very well and I was very grateful for all of their accommodations. After lunch we got some vans, headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and head towards Napa Valley to tour the Porter Family Vineyards. Continuing the trend, the view was amazing with the all the rolling hills and the mountains in the background. We were given a tour of the vineyard and educated on how much the vines are effected by different amounts of water and nutrients in the soil. After that we got to see how they sort all of their berries and remove any debris before fermenting the wine and learn about the fermentation process. After that we got to tour the cave they use to age their wine. This may or may not sound like a very impressive element to the vineyard but I will ensure you that it was one of the highlights of the trip; I think it’s something you have to see to fully appreciate. The cave seemed to never end but we eventually came upon a nook in the cave set up for us to partake in a vertical wine tasting in order to experience how the wine tastes different from year to year. We were taught how to properly examine the color, aroma, body, and the taste which was judged by the acid, sweetness, and tannin of the wine. While it was easy to tell each wine had a distinct smell and flavor, my palate isn’t quite refined enough to be able to distinguish their characteristics. I still enjoyed getting to taste the various wines though and I won’t lie, it felt pretty awesome to be sitting in the vineyards cave drinking wine that sold for around $80/bottle which is much more than my college budget can really afford. I also really enjoyed getting to hear someone that knows what they are talking about teach us so much about every aspect of wine. Our guide also talked to us about some of what is necessary to pass the sommelier examination which I was just blown away by. If you don’t know what it is I would recommend reading into it a bit because I find it amazing. Once the tour was over we headed to a local pizza place to grab a bite to eat before making the drive over to San Jose and checking into our new hotel. It had been a pretty long day for all of us so we were pretty tired. We decided it was best just taking some time to settle into the new hotel before calling it a night.

-Kevin Coleman – Computer Engineering, Fifth Year

7 AM in the lobby with our bags packed was a struggle for most.  We were off to the to get a private tour of Alcatraz. The walk to the trolley stop unusually windy, but a warm wind which was a nice change from the Houghton weather.  Arriving at the port, we boarded a boat to Alcatraz with the crew since the island wasn’t open to visitors quit yet.  We were able to take the audio tour through the prison and seeing what life was like at Alcatraz.  Once the audio tour had finished, we reconvened on the lawn to head up the lighthouse.  The lighthouse is closed to the public and was only open once at the 150th anniversary of the previous lighthouse.  This exclusive tour was the best view of the city. At the very top, everyone could get a 360 degree view of the city.  Even though I was holding on for my life and trying to not be the clumsy person I am, I wished I could stay and take in the view all day.  After we descended from the lighthouse, we got a personal tour of the basement, tunnels, the workers buildings, the gun gallery, and much more that the public was not able to see.  Debbie was one of our tour guides and an alumnae, provided us with a lunch once back on land.  Leaving the pier, Debbie gave us hugs and wished us luck .  Retrieving our bags, loading up the vans and off to Porter Family Vineyard.  There were many different aspects of a vineyard that I had never realized went into making wine, not to say the time it took for a vine to begin budding.  The most fascinating part of the vineyard was the cave that the Porter Family own. They had build it to produce their wine in, the humidity in the cave was better for the fermentation and there wasn’t enough space in the original office.  In one cove where we were able to technically taste wine that was produced from 2005 (the first Porter Family win made) to 2010.  Being able see the differences in the wine in the color, body, taste, aroma, and quality was fascinating to me.  I did not know that wine was this complex. We learned how to get the best aroma out of the wine for a better evaluation of each year.  We were able to mingle and ask as many questions we pleased, most of us did not want to leave the vineyard. Alcatraz and the Porter Family Vineyard were some of the best memories I had at this point. Being able to hear the history and find out how a small startup is properly run was a great learning experience.  Google and Tesla should be interesting to see.

-Kirsten Dulbandzhyan – Mktg & Mngmt, Third Year

Today I awoke to the sounds of the city and my blaring alarm clock at 6 AM. San Francisco takes on a whole new feel at 7am, and clearly shows its roots in business with all the early morning chaos. Once down at the docks we met up with Debra Campbell and boarded the ferryboat. As it turns out we were graced with riding one of the newer hybrid electric boats, which was a big excitement for the EE majors on the trip. The ferries were outfitted with solar panels, wind turbines, and electric motors, in a system that helps reduce the boats use of fossil fuels. It also showcased the National Park Services drive for becoming more environmentally friendly. As one can imagine the ride out to Alcatraz was filled with more amazing views of the cityscape and vibrant sunrise. Once on the Island it became apparent that we were getting the VIP treatment so to speak, and received tours before all the other tourists arrived.  The park rangers also allowed us access to the top of the island lighthouse, and a look at the basement construction projects that were underway. I can say that being atop the 86 foot tall lighthouse was more than nerve racking, but well worth it. The view of the bay was not only stunning, but also from a perspective that most people will never have the chance to see. We then made our way into the catacombs beneath the prison buildings. Here we snaked through the ruins of the first edifice the island supported, a 1850′s civil war fort. As it turns out the prison was built right on top of the fort, and was suffering from sever structural degradation. Debbie showed us how the park service was re-constructing some steel and cement beams to stabilize the building above, while still maintaining the look of 1850′s construction. Our group re-surfaced and caught the 1:00 PM boat back to shore, where we ate a great lunch provided by the NPS and loaded up in vans. The next stop was Napa Valley, and Porter Family Vineyards. I didn’t think that California could offer up any more amazing views than those found in the bay area, but I was quickly proven wrong. The rolling green hills were dotted with wineries, and very beautiful to say the least. The Porter vineyard was atop a high hill, and overlooked a large section of the valley. Tim met us in the yard, and commenced what was sure to be a great cultural experience. We all walked with him as he explained the wine making process, and the business behind his winery. Then he took our group through two giant doors, and into his very own cave. This cave was simply jaw dropping, boasting 15-foot ceilings, textured Shotcrete walls, and loads of gorgeous stainless steal processing equipment. It was lined with barrel after barrel of wine, and wrapped around the corner out of sight. Tim talked us through the various aspects of wine making, and explained that the barrels are made of French oak, and contribute about 40% of the wines characteristics. We then walked about halfway through the tunnel, and entered a wine tasting room. This room was absolutely breath taking, sporting artwork, lit candles, and of course about 100 different bottles of wine. The room had a romantic and affluent ambiance that instantly made me feel far more elegant than I really am. I sat down at a beautifully set table, and spent the next 2 hours or so technically tasting Porter wines. I must say that the experience was beyond my expectations. I really discovered why wine tasting is such a hobby among many people. Tim and his intern exposed how wine has much more to it than just a color. We got to evaluate his wine for things like body, clarity, acid, tannin content, and aroma. He even said that our input would be used in conjunction with the first tasting of the wines to see how they have aged. It was so enjoyable, and quite unforgettable! Tims passion for wine was evident in his every word, and was only outweighed by his gracious hospitality. After a quick goodbye we put the terraces of the vineyard in the rear view mirror, and headed down into a small Napa town were we had pizza for dinner.

-Nicholas Schweikart – Mechanical Engineering, First Year