California Colleges Feed Wine Industry

Students drawn by accessibility and flexibility at community colleges

by Jane Firstenfeld
A student from Santa Rosa Junior College prunes grapevines at the school’s Shone Farm.
San Rafael, Calif.—From planning, planting and nurturing vineyards to making professional-quality wine through packaging and profitable marketing of the product, the wine industry offers opportunity and challenges. New entrants to the field and veterans alike can benefit from education shared by experts, but not everyone can afford the time or financial commitments to attend degree programs.

Community colleges fill in the gaps, making wine education accessible to professional hopefuls as well as curious consumers. While the wine world is aware of the state’s powerhouse wine-education universities—notably UC Davis, California State University, Fresno, Sonoma State and California Polytechnic University—not everyone knows about the valuable (and lower cost) community college wine programs. These can prepare people to enter new careers or advance in existing ones within the industry, or to continue on to four-year programs in California or elsewhere.

Some of the state’s 112 community colleges maintain campus vineyards and wineries to provide students with a global experience of the wine industry.

Destination Napa
Not surprisingly, Napa Community College and its associated Napa Valley College Estate Winery, endowed by the Napa Valley Vintners, is known as a destination school, drawing enrollment not just from the huge local industry but from around the world.

Spokesperson Lissa Gibbs emphasized the partnerships and synergies between the college programs and the Napa vineyard/winery/hospitality business.

“We are focused on what you need to know,” Gibbs said. NCC and other community colleges cater to a “whole other dimension of the industry.” She cited examples such as a range of students who might be transferring to Cal Poly or UC Davis, but also to cellar workers who want to move up to the lab; farm workers who want to become vineyard managers; those who want to continue working while in school; or entrepreneurs seeking a career path change. “In one class, we might have a billionaire high-tech early retiree learning beside the child of a farmworker beside an enology student. We feed a whole different part of the industry.” Students from as far afield as Brazil and China contribute to the mix as well at this open-access destination campus.

Gibbs also noted the increase in returning military veterans who are particularly interested in sustainable ag practices. Community colleges, she stressed, are “an essential part of a robust industry.”

At its campuses in Napa and St. Helena, Calif., NCC each year serves about 8,000 students. In any given semester “a few hundred” are enrolled in wine related courses, according to Bryan Avila, who manages the teaching winery, Napa College Estate Winery, where students grow grapes and produce as many as 800 cases per year. “It’s solid training,” said the industry veteran, a UC Davis graduate in fermentation science.

“We’re not your everyday community college,” Gibbs said. Among its other functions, the college provides contract training for winery staff in the mandatory TIPS program for food service, and administers California’s Small Business Development Corp. in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The college will host a hospitality symposium at the Upper Valley campus March 25. (Details here.) 

Santa Rosa JC: Still growing
With its main campus in Sonoma County’s county seat and largest city, a satellite in Petaluma and the 40-acre, organically certified Shone Farm in Forestville, Santa Rosa Junior College boasts enrollment of 40,000 students. Although SRJC is in the heart of the North Coast wine country, this semester only about 120 students are signed up in the viticulture program, coordinated since 2006 by Merilark Padgett-Johnson.

Students choose between career certificates or associate of science degrees, Padgett-Johnson said. “The certificate programs have what I call ‘the good stuff,’” she said. Unlike the degree path, with its demands for math, language and other requirements, certificate programs attract students who may already have bachelor’s or advanced degrees and want specific training in their field. Certificates include enology, wine and vine, marketing, wine evaluation and service.

SRJC’s Wine Studies program has been covered by adjunct instructors since its previous director retired two years ago, according to Padgett-Johnson, but new, full-time faculty will soon be on board. “That program is huge, with a lot of information about Sonoma varietals and AVAs,” she said.

The viticulture program is closely integrated with the local wine industry. “Each program has an advisory committee of 20 major players that meets every semester. These industry professionals want to make sure the students come out of our programs well trained and employable,” Padgett-Johnson said.

Because of its location amid Sonoma County’s 765 wineries, “I get students from out of state. Not a lot of community colleges even teach our basic curriculum: That’s a plus of having such a vital advisory board. We concentrate on hands-on training. Members of our board guest speak, and take students on field trips. A lot of my students get jobs even before they get their certificates,” Padgett-Johnson said.

Wines grown and produced at Shone Farm are sold at retail locally.

With college funding restored after passage of Proposition 30, Padgett-Johnson is rushing to put together another class, Advances in Viticulture; 30 students have enrolled in the class, which will start in April. 

Sign on at Hancock
Santa Barbara County’s Allan Hancock College is based in Santa Maria, Calif., with a student body of some 10,000. Alfred Koch heads its AgriBusiness program, which includes courses in enology/viticulture, wine marketing and sales, and wine and food pairing. Most of the program’s 200 students are from the local area, although others come from as far south as San Diego, Koch said.

“We have a brand new winery, which should be ready in about two more months, and we’re working to get it bonded,” Koch said. He aims to produce 500-1,000 cases of high-quality wine to market commercially.

Hancock recently received a grant for basic agriculture courses from the USDA, intended to prepare students to transfer to four-year schools. “Our classes are less expensive with flexible hours so students can work and study, and people from the industry can develop their job skills,” Koch explained. Hancock has a 4-acre vineyard on campus and also sources grapes from a nearby vineyard owned by Kendall-Jackson.

Northern exposure
Shasta College in Redding, Calif., is close to the Oregon border, serving Shasta, Tehama and Trinity counties. Roger Gerard directs the viticulture and enology program founded some eight years ago. He reported that the Shasta College bonded winery is seeking approval from the California ABC to sell its award-winning wines, which currently are donated to charitable causes.  

As in the other schools, wine industry support is a vital component in the program. Industry members from the three counties’ 26 far-flung, wineries teach the basic and intermediate winemaking and viticulture courses. Shasta has a 2.5-acre vineyard, planted mostly to red varieties. Kathy Ross from Dakaro Cellars teaches vineyard design and construction.

The region has “a lot of grapegrowers, but not a lot of people who knew how to make wine,” said Gerard, who collaborates closely with the Shasta Cascade Viticulture Association

Most courses in the two-year, basic winemaking program draw 25-30 students. “My demographic is interesting,” Gerard said. It’s a mostly rural area with a major medical industry, many legal professionals and educators with discretionary income, and some 45% of the population are retirees, he said.

Cabrillo will star
Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County shockingly slashed its wine program in 2011; partially restored last year, the program within the Culinary Arts Department continues to expand under the direction of Sue Slater.  

The Food Network/Cooking Channel recognized the program, following four culinary students throughout the last semester. Slater and her wine students are prominently featured. “They were filming all of my classes,” she said.

Like the other community colleges, Cabrillo’s wine program gets strong support from the local wine community. The Santa Cruz Mountains Winery Association held a fundraiser for the program in October. Not only did this raise some $10,000 for the school, it will also be shown during one of the episodes, which will start March 11 on the Cooking Channel.

This semester, Slater is teaching Wine & Wine Service, Sensory Evaluation of Varietal Wines and Wines of California. In the fall, she’ll have a viticulture class as well. Wine classes this semester include some 150 students, who benefit from expert industry advice. Master of wine and master sommelier Fred Dame will demonstrate his techniques for blind tastings in an add-on session.

Other classes are in the works, Slater said, including two 16-unit skills certificates for tasting room management and world wines. “I am working all of this toward a 30-unit certificate of achievement and an associate’s degree eventually. Lots of work to do for the degree at the Chancellor's Office,” she said.

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