Wine Education in Washington

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/22/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20842

Growing grapes (viticulture) and making wine from them (enology) are each a fine blend of both art and science. Yet they are activities that for most of mankind's history have been self-taught, or passed down in the unwritten "folk process" within families or shared between friendly neighbors. By the late 1800s the earliest winemakers in the Pacific Northwest were typically newcomer homesteaders and, to a large extent, recent immigrants from European countries with deep wine traditions. Commercial wineries eventually followed, as did Prohibition (1916-1933) and its subsequent repeal. It wasn't until then that a more disciplined approach was adopted, and college-trained agricultural specialists began issuing helpful reports about the grape-growing potential in Washington. By the 1960s local wineries were seeking expert advice from experienced California wine professionals. Then, in the 1970s, numerous California-schooled winemakers and vineyard-tenders were imported by young Washington wineries to help improve their products. Washington wines garnered critical raves, and the demand for skilled workers inspired various local educational institutions to establish viticulture and enology study programs. This is an overview of the educational opportunities in Washington in the early twenty-first century.

Homestead Plonk

Despite persistent myths that eighteenth-century French fur-trappers taught local Native tribes how to plant winegrapes in the Pacific Northwest, the earliest known evidence of grape cultivation tells a different story. We know that: grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver around 1827; a nursery selling grapevine cuttings was established in the Willamette Valley in 1847; and three more nurseries were founded in the Puget Sound area by 1854. By the 1860s several men had planted vineyards around Walla Walla and Union Gap, Washington, and over the next couple of decades additional vineyards arose at Wenatchee, Moxee, and Evans (aka Stretch) Island.

Grown by homesteading newcomers -- including Italian and French immigrants -- the available grapevines were often of unfamiliar varieties, and the new vineyards planted on untested land in a manner informed only by memory and without any scientific analysis. Similarly, the grapes were converted to wine via traditional methods remembered from previous experiences in the old country. Presumably not all of these early efforts were esthetically successful. 

Old School Style

American winemaking took a giant leap forward on April 15, 1880, when "the California Legislature mandated the Regents of the University of California to establish a program providing for instruction and research in viticulture and enology." This legislative action established research centers at universities that would guide, though scientific study, the technical advancement of the national wine industry through a program modeled on the best practices in Italy, Germany, and France.

By 1935 -- and now in the post-Prohibition era -- that original program had expanded into the Department of Viticulture and Enology on the campus at Davis, California, just west of Sacramento.

"The original founders of the department recognized that quality in the bottle is a direct result of quality in the vineyard and resolved to dispense with the centuries of winemaking tradition that historically had separated the study of viticulture from that of enology." The school’s basic breakthrough was that of offering multidisciplinary studies that would encompass "all of the scientific disciplines that impact grape growing and winemaking" including "chemistry, genetics, microbiology, chemical engineering, horticulture, biochemistry, plant physiology, and sensory science"(ucdavis.edu). 

Growers & Growth

Efforts to educate the public, via published means, about the potential for grape-growing in the Pacific Northwest began at least as early as 1906 when the French immigrant, vineyard owner, and winemaker Robert Schleicher issued his Grape Culture in Lewiston-Clarkston Valley booklet. That was followed, in 1910, by vineyard owner Adam Eckert and his Grape Growing In The Pacific NW: From Practical Experience Of 20 Years in the State of Washington.

During that first decade of the twentieth century, Washington winemaking was mainly a private home activity -- aside from the fair amount of California bulk wine being sent up by train. But, the social busybodies behind the Temperance movement condemned alcohol in general, and those forces successfully pushed for the prohibition of alcohol in Washington in 1916. Prohibition then went nationwide in 1920 and the precipitous decline of the wine business really got underway. Wineries far and wide were shuttered, the old distribution system contracted, and the illicit booze market skyrocketed.

With the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, an increase in the popularity of wine, and the expansion of the wine- production and wine-retail businesses began. New vineyards and wineries instantly blossomed in Washington, to the extent that in 1935 the Washington Wine Producers Association was founded. Among its members were representatives from the Seattle-based fruit-wine purveying companies, Pommerelle and National Wine Company (NAWICO) -- two among 42 wineries statewide by 1938.

In 1954 those two firms merged as the American Wine Growers. They dominated the regional market for decades, finally morphing into the state's greatest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle (at 14111 NE 145th Street, Woodinville), in 1967. Meanwhile another winery, the Associated Vintners, had been formed in 1962 by a few Seattle hobbyists. They soon planted a vineyard in Prosser, scored notable commercial successes -- and by 1984 had developed into the Columbia Winery (at 14030 NE 145th Street, Woodinville).

Educated Wine-Makers

Public interest in wine, and winemaking, was on the comeback, and individuals who had no particular family traditions in this realm welcomed the publishing of a slew of how-to books on the topic. Among them was H. E. Bravery's 1961 paperback, Successful Wine Making At Home, distributed by Seattle's Aetna Bottle Company. Another was from Lilliwaup, Washington -- Leslie G. Slater's 1965 booklet, The Secrets Of Making Wine From Fruits And Berries. Robert Hardwick's Cheap Wine Book was published in Seattle around 1971. As a result, home-based winemaking saw a surge of interest. In 1971 a few amateur enthusiasts -- albeit, engineers and the like -- formed the Boeing Employees' Winemakers Club, a group that educated each other and produced a good dozen enologists who hence opened their own wineries. Wine (and brewing) supply shops began popping up and a new generation of counterculture DIY folks also started taking up wine-making in their own off-the-grid manner.

Meanwhile, some established grape-growers started their own wineries -- while a few wineries planted their own vineyards. But many eventually realized that they needed to improve their methods to achieve real success. Some studied up on whatever previously published materials they could locate, while others relied on expensive advice from out-of-state consultants. A few farmers would be able to send their offspring to UC Davis, while others went straight to the source and hired recent graduates from the school.

Among the first wineries to import young UC Davis alumni as enologists was Chateau Ste. Michelle, which in 1974 hired Joel Klein, and then Kay Simon in 1977. The winery hired UC Davis viticulture grad Clay Mackey as its Eastern Washington vineyard manager (which is how he and Simon met and later married). Another was Pasco's Preston Wine Cellars, which brought aboard enologist Rob Griffin -- who would also work for Hogue Cellars (at 2800 Lee Road, Prosser) -- and is renowned for the wines produced annually by his own Barnard Griffin Winery (at 878 Tulip Lane, Richland). As Griffin once recalled: "At the time, there were two or three major textbooks on winemaking and, of course, no internet and very little in the way of industry publications that had useful information. Knowledge about such things as yeast metabolism, interaction with sulfur and pH, and dozens of other subjects was not particularly advanced" (Perdue).

With informative textbooks, a robust internet, and a good half-dozen educational institutions offering relevant programs as of 2019, the state of wine-making in Washington was on solid ground like never before. The 900-plus wineries in the state attest to that fact. The earliest school in the state to contribute to all this success was the Pullman-based Washington State College (renamed Washington State University in 1959), which, just like UC Davis, was originally opened (in 1892, as the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science) as a land-grant university dedicated to agricultural studies.

Washington State University -- Viticulture Program

In 1937 Washington State College assigned an assistant horticulturist named Dr. Walter J. Clore (1911-2003) to a position at the Irrigation Branch Experimentation Station (today’s Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension Center) outside the Yakima Valley town of Prosser. Dr. Clore proceeded to kickstart the scientific analysis of soil conditions, weather patterns, and sun exposure -- and over the following decades offered advice on such matters to many framers and would-be vineyards owners. His influence on the advance of local viticultural practices cannot be overestimated -- hence, his earning the title of "Father of the Washington State Wine industry," as declared by the state legislature. 

In the 1960s WSU formally launched its Viticulture and Enology program, offering V&E students studies at three facilities: the Pullman, Prosser, and Richland campuses. This endeavor showed promise, inspired many students, and blazed the trail regionally.

Walla Walla Community College - Institute for Enology and Viticulture

In 2002 a co-founder of the esteemed Walla Walla Vintners winery, Myles Anderson, helped launch this community college's winemaking program. From modest beginnings it has developed into the WWCC Institute for Enology and Viticulture (at 500 Tausick Way) -- a two-year program that typically includes about 60 students studying grape-growing, enology, sensory evaluation, and marketing. Some of the job roles that the institute trains students for include those of: Viticulturist, Vineyard Manager, Winemaker/Assistant Winemaker, Cellar Master, Wine Sales and Promotion, and that of Vineyard & Winery Equipment Sales Representative.

As WWCC is based in the midst of a rich agricultural zone, and ever-expanding wine production area -- the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) -- hands-on work experience opportunities are abundant for students and graduates. Of the hundreds of graduates, about 40 were operating their own wineries in 2019. The Institute established an eight-acre teaching vineyard planted to at least 15 varieties, and the wine produced from these grapes is then sold at their own College Cellars (at 3020 E Isaacs Avenue).

South Seattle College - Northwest Wine Academy

In 2004 South Seattle College's Northwest Wine Academy (at 6000 16th Avenue SW) was established as the first teaching winery in Western Washington. Located far from the great vineyards of Eastern Washington, the academy focuses heavily on winemaking and business skills rather than viticulture. The 150 to 180 students enrolled per quarter study enology, business, sales, marketing, viticulture, and certificate and degree programs include Winemaking, Wine Marketing and Sales, Food and Wine Pairing, and Sommelier Certificate Preparation.

Wine industry professionals review the course offerings to ensure that needed skills are addressed, and students enjoy various opportunities to develop contacts within the industry. Beginning with its first vintage in 2005, the winemaking academy typically produces nearly 1,000 cases per vintage -- wines that are available through the on-campus tasting facility, as well as a few retail outlets. The wines have won gold medals at showcase events such as the Tri-Cities Wine Festival, and the Seattle Wine Awards.

Yakima Valley College - Vineyard and Winery Technology Program

In 2007 the agriculture department of Yakima Valley College opened its new winemaking program on a new campus (at 500 West Main Street) at the historic town of Grandview -- a hallowed locale where some of the state's earliest commercial winegrape vineyards and wineries were founded. The Grandview campus boasts classrooms, a laboratory, and a barrel and case storage facility, along with a pair of incubator winery spaces. 

The V&WT program instructs about 25 students per year, mainly locals, who are taught subjects ranging from wine evaluation basics to marketing (including "strategic branding, consumer behavior, and marketing plans for wineries and wine products"). It also offers degrees that "emphasize the development of grape production principles with specialization in the integrated management of insect, disease, and weed pests."

Job roles offered for training include: technical advisor, grape production manager, crew supervisor, and production crew worker. The school and its students operate the on-campus Yakima Valley Vintners winery, which debuted its first wine at the 2008 Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting event and by 2019 was producing from 300 to 500 cases per vintage. Its wines have won at least 90 awards over the years. In 2010 the program planted an on-site teaching vineyard with Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Lemberger vines.

A more recent development was the founding of the Winery Cellar Leadership Program, aimed at advancing the skillset of people already employed at a winery. Its goal is to "focus on the cellar aspects of winemaking from the receipt of grapes until wine is in the bottle; leadership in a cellar environment; winery-specific math conversions and formulas; and basic computer skills" ("Vineyard and Winery Technology").

Central Washington University - Global Wine Trade Program

As Washington wines continued to carve out an ever-higher profile internationally, Central Washington University (at 400 E University Way, Ellensburg) stepped up in a big way. Its offerings began as a certificate program, advanced to a Bachelor of Science program in 2008, and have since taken on an ambitious and broader approach than most other wine education organizations. CWU's Wine Studies academic degree program focuses on the international trade facet of the wine business. Core areas of coursework include: Wine Regions, Viticulture and Enology, Sensory Analysis, Marketing and Branding, and International Wine Trade. Degrees offered include: Wine Trade Certificate, Wine Industry Management, and a unique Wine Trade and Tourism Minor. 

Another unusual aspect of the CWU program is its requirement that students participate in a wine-business internship, as well as a study-abroad adventure. The former is an "educational plan designed to integrate classroom study with planned, supervised, and evaluated work experience in the wine industry," while the latter is "structured to maximize the learning experience through site visits, tours, and presentations" ("Wine Studies"). 

WSU-Tri Cities – Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center

In 2015 Washington State University-Tri Cities held the Grand Opening celebration for its $23 million Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center (at 2710 Crimson Way, Richland). Named in honor of the famed winery in Woodinville, the major fundraising effort was led by that firm's longtime-CEO, Ted Baseler. 

With a focus on education and research, this state-of-the-art (and science!) facility features classrooms, a world-class laboratory, and at the entrance to campus, the quarter-acre Albert Ravenholt (1920-2010) research and teaching vineyard. Its namesake was a founding partner in the esteemed Sagemoor Vineyards planted in Pasco in the early 1970s, and his estate donated $500,000 to the Science Center. The Ravenholt Vineyard is planted to varieties that have proven themselves locally over the decades -- reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah), and whites (Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer). The wine is marketed under the WSU Blended Learning brand.

That "blended learning" phrase refers to the program's practice of "bringing together students, alumni, winemakers, growers and wine enthusiasts to uncork the possibilities." The Wine Science Center is proud that it is "ready to serve as a gathering place to spark innovation, fuel economic development, support local, regional, national and international collaboration, and provide a catalyst for research breakthroughs" ("Wine Science ...").

A Collaborative Consortium

In 2014 a needs-assessment review concluded that there would "be a shortage of technically-trained employees in the areas of Viticulture ... Enology ... and Wine Marketing/Sales" in the years ahead. One result was that a number of Washington's educational institutions -- Yakima Valley College, South Seattle College, and Wenatchee Valley College -- began partnering to create opportunities to meet this projected demand.

Their Pacific Northwest Wine Education Collaborative designed a few one-year certificate programs -- Viticulture Sustainability, Wine Business Entrepreneurship, and the Latino Agriculture Education Program -- provided through online courses as well as hands-on learning. A core goal is to offer "access to the viticulture and enology expertise at each participating institution, giving more low-income and minority students across Washington State access to a high-demand occupation while giving place-bound incumbent workers the ability to advance their education" ("Pacific Northwest Wine ...").

With all of these educational institutions actively preparing the next generations of agricultural workers, vineyard and winery owners, winemakers, and marketing and sales professionals, the state's wine industry was poised to excel moving forward. With so many new students studying the arts and sciences that support grape and wine production -- and having them learn by using grapes from local vineyards -- Washington wine can be expected to continuously improve. Indeed, "[w]ith the increase of wine programs in the state, the reliance on outside sources undoubtedly will decrease, as wineries will prefer to use homegrown talent" (Perdue).


Sources:

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Wine In Washington" (by Peter Blecha), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 16, 2019; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997); "UC Davis Viticulture & Enology -- History," ucdavis.edu website accessed July 15, 2019 (https://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/about/history); Peter Blecha interview with Kay Simon, November 13, 2016, recording in author's possession; "Enology & Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College," wwcc.edu website accessed July 10, 2019 (https://www.wwcc.edu/CMS/fileadmin/flyers/EV.pdf); "Walla Walla Enology and Viticulture Institute -- Wine Education Programs," wallawallauncovered.com website accessed July 10, 2019 (https://www.wallawallauncovered.com/wine-industry/enology-viticulture-education/); "Vineyard and Winery Technology," yvcc website accessed July 10, 2019 (https://www.yvcc.edu/academics/wine/); "About: Yakima Valley Vintners," yakimavalleyvintners.com website accessed July 15, 2019 (http://www.yakimavalleyvintners.com/); "About: The Academy," nwwineacademy website accessed July 14, 2019 (https://nwwineacademy.com/about); "Wine Studies," cwu.edu website accessed July 10, 2019 (https://www.cwu.edu/family-consumer/wine-studies); "Wine Science (Viticulture & Enology)," wsu.edu website accessed July 10, 2019 (https://tricities.wsu.edu/viticulture-enology-wine-science/); Christina Herrick, "Gift From Washington Wine’s Past To Fund Future," growing produc.com website accessed July 20, 2019 (https://www.growingproduce.com/fruits/grapes/gift-from-washington-wines-past-to-fund-future/); "Pacific Northwest Wine Education Collaborative," yvcc.edu website accessed July 19, 2019 (https://www.yvcc.edu/academics/pacific-northwest-wine-education-collaborative/); Andy Perdue, "Washington's Future Winemakers Have 4 In-State College Options," The Seattle Times, November 10, 2018 (https://www.seattletimes.com).


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