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School of Wine: Training Students for Jobs in Washington State’s Wine Industry

September 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With more than 700 vineyards, Washington state has become a premier location for viticulture. One community college has created a winemaking degree that fosters economic, environmental and cultural sustainability in and around the city of Walla Walla where vineyards continue to sprout. Special correspondent John Tulenko reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, higher education, jobs, and, yes, fine wine.

Leaders in business and politics are increasingly looking to community colleges to help train students and, in some cases, even connect them directly with potential employers.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters has a story about the unusual path that one college in Washington state is taking.

JOHN TULENKO: The 2012 Seattle Wine Awards, showcasing the best in Washington state wines.

JOEL BUTLER, wine judge: We have over 700 wineries. And we make some of the best Cabernet, Serrat, Riesling, and Merlot. So, we’re one of the top places in the world now for making fine wine.

JOHN TULENKO: One champion receiving three double gold medals was an entry few had ever heard of, College Cellars.

WOMAN: It’s very full-bodied, but it’s very chocolaty. I like it.

JOHN TULENKO: Made by students learning winemaking at their local community college.

TIM DONAHUE, wine instructor: We entered six wines. And we went six for six.

JOHN TULENKO: Wine instructor Tim Donahue.

TIM DONAHUE: That was the goal from day one. I wanted to teach them how to make good wine. Then we get the medals. And it’s like wow, we did it. This happened.

JOHN TULENKO: The wine was made here, 270 miles southeast of Seattle in Walla Walla, Wash., best known for its fertile farmlands, for sweet onions and apples. It was here 12 years that the community college launched its wine school, the first of its kind in the nation.

TIM DONAHUE: So what you want to do is always have a bottle ready to go, because, if you don’t, these can drip a little bit.

JOHN TULENKO: The two-year degree program covers everything from grape growing and pressing to barreling, blending and tasting, taught hands on at the college’s vineyard.

TIM DONAHUE: It’s hard, hard work. A lot of people think it’s sitting in the vine, sipping wine. It’s not. You’re cold. You’re wet. You’re in a cellar. You’re lifting heavy things.

There’s a — definitely a solid blue-collar job.

TYLER TENNYSON, student: I was impressed with how much they’re able to cram in to two years.

JOHN TULENKO: The program attracts students from across the country, many of whom, like Tyler Tennyson, come to winemaking from other careers.

TYLER TENNYSON: I was a commercial appraiser. And I got laid off. And so, I called my wife and I said, so I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is, I got laid off. The good news is, we can move to Walla Walla. Six weeks later, I was starting the program and doing a harvest.

JOHN TULENKO: After graduating, Tyler was hired as a cellar master, overseeing all aspects of production at Seven Hills Vintners, a premier winemaker in Walla Walla.

TYLER TENNYSON: I felt totally competent coming out of the program in terms of totally competent to step into a winery and play an active role in winemaking.

JOHN TULENKO: A recent survey of graduates found 80 percent are working in the wine industry as vineyard managers, winemakers, cellar workers, and wine sellers.

Most earn between $25,000 and $55,000 a year. As much as this is a story about winemaking, it’s also a story about Walla Walla, a small town like many others that was hit hard, and what happened when the community college decided to play a part in helping to turn things around.

Before making wine, Walla Walla was famous for wheat and other crops that brought prosperity to the valley for more than 100 years. But in the 1990s, free trade agreements flooded the market with cheap imported produce.

STEVEN VANAUSDLE, Walla Walla Community College: We started losing our food processing industry, which provided hundreds of jobs for people.

JOHN TULENKO: Steven VanAusdle is the college president.

STEVEN VANAUSDLE: Quality of life diminished. And we saw more storefronts that were vacant. Companies basically went out of business and closed.

JOHN TULENKO: Bad as things were, they were about to get better. Sensing potential in the soil and climate here, a small group of pioneering winemakers had started growing grapes.

STEVEN VANAUSDLE: Some of here at the college in our planning thought, gee, is there something we could do maybe to help what could be an emerging industry and opportunity?

JOHN TULENKO: Their answer, the wine school, to supply the trained work force the industry needed to grow.

MYLES ANDERSON, Walla Walla Community College: The industry was the one that dictated the curriculum. It helped us design the building.

This is Cabernet Franc.

JOHN TULENKO: Myles Anderson, who founded one of the region’s first vineyards while teaching psychology at the college, was tapped to run the program.

MYLES ANDERSON: They said we want practical, concrete, hands on. So that’s what we have done.

JOHN TULENKO: Over the next 12 years, wineries in the valley took off, growing from a total of 19 to 174. A town that had been in decline saw its fortunes reversed.

MYLES ANDERSON: We have 29 tasting rooms downtown. And we have great restaurants again. And we have great places for people to visit. So it’s flourishing.

STEVEN VANAUSDLE: A wine tourist spends about two-and-a-half times as much at their destination as the average tourist. So, attracting tourists and keeping them here became an objective.

JOHN TULENKO: Along with winemaking, the course offerings include programs in culinary arts and golf course management.

Is that the proper role of a community college, to foster a hospitality business?

STEVEN VANAUSDLE: For students, their primary interest in life is preparing for work, having a secure job. So, it’s all about jobs and quality of life and standard of living and wages today, I think.

JOHN TULENKO: But some are hungry for more.

Jody Middleton already had a job at a juice processing plant. So did Jeremy Petty. Born and raised in Walla Walla, they had been friends for years.

JODY MIDDLETON, Walla Walla, Wash.: We met in middle school, played football together side by side on the offensive line. We protected our quarterback. And we’re working together again.

JOHN TULENKO: Dreaming of a vineyard of their own, together, they enrolled in wine school and took hands-on learning to a whole other level.

One assignment was to create the layout for a vineyard.

MAN: What have we got here?

JOHN TULENKO: First, they drew it. Then?

All this, you guys built.

JEREMY PETTY, Walla Walla, Wash.: From the ground up.

JODY MIDDLETON: Absolutely.

JOHN TULENKO: They planted their vineyard in an empty field beside Jeremy’s house. And while it was taking root, they gave themselves another challenge.

JEREMY PETTY: We just kind of said, well, let’s just make some wine. Why not — how are you going to understand better than actually doing it?

TIM DONAHUE: They said, well, you know, what if we want to make wine at home? I said, you know, there’s a secret in the wine industry. And I might get in trouble for letting this out.

But every year, there’s always fruit hanging around somewhere. And it’s not good. It’s stuff that got rejected because it’s moldy or wrong, but it’s your first time making wine. You’re going to screw it up anyway. So do what you can.

JEREMY PETTY: We drove out to the vineyard in the semi. And I had my kids and his kids and all the family. And we all picked everything.

TIM DONAHUE: And the next thing you know, they found some used barrels. And they found little things here and there. And they just went for it. Their investment for the wine industry is unheard of, how small it is. And they have made some pretty good wine.

JODY MIDDLETON: Little bit of Cab Franc, little bit of Malbec. We’re going to have about 300 cases from our first vintage. And we are going to be bottling here shortly.

JOHN TULENKO: The harvest from their backyard vineyard will yield another 85 cases. Then they will start selling.

Does the wine have a name?

JEREMY PETTY: We’re going with J&J Vintners, so Jeremy, Jody.

JODY MIDDLETON: The dream is to have a successful winery, to build a business that is going to sustain our families. It will be great, be our own bosses, be able to have something, a legacy to pass down to our children.

JOHN TULENKO: If J&J vintners succeeds, they will add to a growing list of wineries the college has launched.

MYLES ANDERSON: We have 25 that have graduated with degrees and have their own wineries here in Walla Walla.

JOHN TULENKO: The college believes tomorrow’s opportunities lie close to Walla Walla’s roots, training water resource managers to protect streams that feed the vineyards and above them technicians for some 5,000 wind turbines that power the area.

STEVEN VANAUSDLE: And they’re still installing them. Every eight to 10 turbines requires a technician. The mission is for economic, environmental and cultural sustainability here.

MYLES ANDERSON: What we have done here is, we have done creative risk-taking. At times, we did — we were going places that no one knew where we were going.

And, so, I call that leadership. Leadership is going places that you have never gone before and taking people with you.

JOHN TULENKO: For J&J Vintners, the journey starts this fall. They launch with plans to sell their first 400 cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Walla Walla program is getting national recognition for its work. For the past two years, it’s been rated as one of the top 10 community colleges by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The honors are given for efforts to significantly improve student outcomes in the classroom and in the job market.