Washington wines are garnering tons of attention and awards over the last decade. What was once a state known for apples, ocean, and Mount Rainier is a rising force in the wine world. At the epicenter of this wine culture is Yakima Valley College (YVC) where a pair of degree offerings are training the new masters of grape growing and winemaking.
I was in Yakima for a travel writer’s event and was able to participate in a two-day wine tour of the Yakima/Prosser area. Within this region are the famed Rattlesnake Hills and Horse Heaven Hills AVA-American Viticulture Areas. I had seen these AVAs listed on wines in restaurants and wine shops recently. On our tour, we tasted dozen of excellent wines from the Yakima Valley.
When our wine trip continued at the Yakima Valley College on day two, we were treated to a comprehensive tour of the wine school. Brad Smith gave us a presentation in the Vineyard & Winery Technology Program’s tasting room, wine lab, barrel room, and vineyard. All through the tour, I witnessed a modern facility teaching a wide range of age groups, and genders the art of winemaking. Residents of states near and far come to learn to be a winemaker and grape grower.
YVC offers both a two year and three-year program for students. Although YVC is a small college with only 6-8 graduates most years, their students are making a difference in the marketplace. Prospective students must decide on whether to take the winemaking path or the vineyard option. YVA offers a Vineyard Technology and Winery Technology Associates Science degree (AAS). When the students have graduated, many of them have won significant awards in their first year out of YVC.
Part of this success can be traced to the wine tasting room where plenty of gold and platinum awarded wines grace the shelves. What sticks out is these are wines made by the students before they even graduate from YVC! The award winners are hard to get wines. Only 300-500 cases are bottled and sold each year. With more than 90 awards given to these vintages, it’s not a surprise they sell out soon after being released.
If winemaking is the desired path, students will get all they need to graduate and enter a growing workforce throughout North America and beyond. Internship opportunities are posted on the YVA’s website helping students get paired with the best on-the-job training. With two years of college, an internship, and dedication to the craft of winemaking YVC graduates are making an impact on the wine world.
New Grape Growers
The vineyard program is cranking out grape growers to fill the anticipated growth of this sector in agriculture. From a humble beginning of only a handful of wineries in the 1980s to over 800 presently, Washington State’s wine expansion is impressive. Somebody needs to grow these grapes and Brad told us the students come from all over the world, but that most are from Washington State. Brad said that some of the students are fresh out of high school, sent to YVC by their parents to learn the craft then come home to the family farm to grow grapes.
Older students in their 60s-70s have been enrolling to see if grape growing might be the crop of the future for farms that have been in the family for several generations. After learning modern vineyard methods and the expected profits, many farmers are adding grapes to the list of produce to supply a thirsty market.
Not all the students attend the YVC’s wine programs on site. An online study course is offered where the student does the bulk of classwork from home. Towards the end of the program, some students visit the YVC campus to attend about two weeks of coursework to finish the required studies. Students choosing the online route pay $118 per credit. This online college path is a very affordable way for a student to graduate and remain at home for most, or all of the two years of study. Even if students decide to move to the Yakima Valley to attend this college, the tuition is reasonable.
Trent Ball, the program chair of YVC told me the on-campus tuition for a non-resident can get a two-year degree for around $9,800. Residents of Washington State pay approximately $9,000 for a two-year degree, and some are hired before graduating.
I’m blown away by all the growth in the wine industry throughout the U.S. A. All 50 U.S. states have vineyards and wineries nowadays. Someone has to grow these grapes and make the wine consumers are demanding. The YVC programs are attractive to those who want a quality education at an affordable price. And the Yakima Valley is a great place to be for two to three years while you get a degree that will lead to a job that seems to be a sought-after career path.
The YVC wines are sold under the name Yakima Valley Vintners (YVV). I sampled three YVV wines recently and found them all award winners in my book. If you find yourself in the Yakima area be sure and drop by YVV, whether your interest is in purchasing wine, a career in grape growing or in winemaking. Either way you’ll learn a lot about wine.
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com.
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