Wine Education at Walla Walla Community College Begins with Grape Picking | New
More than a dozen students, a few retirees, at least one 18-year-old, grab a bucket with loops that hang over their shoulders like the straps of overalls, and get to work picking grapes.
They methodically weave their way along the rows in the cold morning sunlight, cutting through dark purple clusters of Carménère, a grape variety that originated in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, France, but is now predominantly cultivated in Chile.
This is the ninth morning pick for first year students at the Institute of Oenology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. During the program, students will learn the science and crafts of vineyard care and wine making, but it all starts here in the vineyards located in the Port of Walla Walla.
On Thursday, September 16, the students were across the Stan Clarke Vineyard, across from the college’s Miles Anderson Vineyard, each named after the institute’s founders, said Joel Perez, director of viticulture. and the director of the college vineyard. The Stan Clarke vineyard is also called the Bordeaux vineyard, containing many of the most famous French grape varieties.
All the students in the Wine and Viticulture program start in these vineyards, selling the grapes by hand, learning how the work of previous years allows for a better and more efficient harvest. It’s hands-on and tough work, but it helps introduce students to the craft quickly, Perez said.
“They realize that this program is not strictly academic,” Perez said.
“These are commercial grapes, we always pay the same type of taxes, we have to follow the same type of state regulation, while educating,” he continued. “This is the first step in educating yourself on the overall structure of the industry. “
The grapes are carefully framed in the “fruit zone”, a space between the vine and the foliage, the result of the picky choices of Perez and the students of previous years.
“We structure the vines to produce the fruit in a specific area where we can basically predict the structure and the logistics,” Perez said. “The faster the harvest, the more your logistics are streamlined, your costs are reduced and we can make wine faster. “
Carménère, as a distinct grape, has distinct growing needs and styles. If treated like a Cabernet, Perez said, the structure of the grapes and the resulting wine might be unrecognizable as a Carmener product. By recognizing how the Carmenere wants to grow and how it thrives, Perez teaches students how to enhance the qualities that make the strain distinct and valuable.
Carménère isn’t a particularly well-known varietal in the United States, notes Perez as he walks through the field, tasting one of the low-astringency varietals.
“My Carmenere, without a lot of marketing, might never be as valuable as my Cabernet,” Perez said. “So, is it valuable to plant? We do not yet know from our point of view.
But the college vineyards and wine offer an opportunity to study the economics of this varietal with less presence in the U.S. market, information that can be used to benefit the industry as a whole.
“I have some suspicion about the economy, but what I want to do, every time we plant something here, it has to make sense, from the initial planting to selling the wine,” Perez said.
This is only a small part of the education that students receive, much of which is technical and theoretical, much of which concerns the intricacies of what one does after the grapes are harvested. But the hands-on experience in the vineyard that Joel oversees is a distinct selling point for the program, the students said.
Global appeal, personal passion
Juanity Diusaba traveled from England specifically to learn from Walla Walla experts. Her boyfriend, whose family owns a winery, was a graduate of Washington State University, which also offers a viticulture program.
“But he told me that if I hired someone in my cellar, I would hire someone from Walla Walla college,” Diusaba said. “At WSU they have the knowledge, but they don’t have as much experience as the people who come from Walla Walla College.”
Like many students, Diusaba’s journey to winemaking has been winding. She grew up in Colombia and her father was a winemaker in Spain and regularly returned home with bottles from the Spanish winery. He was also a writer and often told stories behind the bottles when shared around the dinner table.
She studied contemporary art in Chile, moved to New York, went to culinary school, got a job as a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. But she loved the wine and the conversations sommeliers could have with diners about the product being served to them. Like her father, she loved the stories behind the bottles.
Army veteran Stephanie Schloesser fell in love with wine by accident. She and her husband ran Coin Operated Boy, a food truck that set up in front of wineries. The couple worked to pair their food with the wines.
“But then I started to notice that I was really into wine,” said Schloesser. “And the more we showed up at all these wineries, the more I started to care.”
She and her husband moved to the area to be closer to her father. As she walked through her new community, she spotted the institute sign by the side of the road.
Dorian Williams has worked in the wine industry for nine years, but joined the program in order to advance in his career. Like Schloesser, he didn’t necessarily expect to find his passion in wine.
“If you had approached me 10 years ago, I would have said you didn’t know me,” Williams said. “But every year I love him more and more. It challenges me.
Williams ran a bakery in Montana before moving to Walla Walla to help support his family. He had been offered a job as an assistant baker at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, but found that his heart was not there. Instead, he took a job in a tasting room. Due to his background in baking, he soon found himself in the back of the store handling yeast. It wasn’t long before he started dipping his toes in other areas of the craft.
“Once I got to get in on the harvest and see the production side of things, that’s when I fell in love with it,” said Williams. “There aren’t a lot of industries where you can be a part of something from the start to the consumer. “
The technical nature of winemaking fascinates him, from the myriad decisions made regarding crop yields, the yeasts extracted for the year, the ways in which different types of oak can make or break the flavor profile of different varieties of grapes.
He also admires the art of wine, the way it captures a time and place, the way a certain song can bring the listener back to special moments in their past.
“Wine and music are the two closest things we have to time travel,” he said.
“For example, we harvest Carmenere,” said Williams. “Every year it’s called Carmenere, but every year it’s different. Each year it gives you a new song that you are grateful for.
This year’s student pool is smaller than average, as is the case at most higher education institutions, Perez acknowledged. But, he said, the students who enrolled despite the challenges posed by the pandemic have consistently proven their determination and desire to be there.
After picking the morning grapes, the students head to their cars and return to college to learn how to crush and process the grapes. Perez defers to other professors on these topics, not only to streamline the business side, but also to remind students of an important lesson.
“From an educational standpoint, they need to know when it’s important to lead and when it’s important to be quiet and be a passenger on the train,” Perez said.
After all, no one can do it all. But it helps to know a bit about how it works.