Forward thinking spurs economic growth

September 11, 2017
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By Ashley Smith, Contributor, Ready To Work Business Collaborative

The domestic wine industry is booming and it seems there is fertile economic ground to grow on. Wine Business Monthly reported last year that the United States has 8,702 wineries, a 5 percent increase from the 8,287 in operation the previous year.

Walla Walla, Washington….the wine capital so nice they named it twice!!

Center for Enology and Viticulture, Walla Walla College

Case in point: Walla Walla, Washington, a small town revived by its now-robust wine industry. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Donahue, the Director of Winemaking at Walla Walla Community College. He not only provided me with a brief history lesson of Walla Walla, but also a glimpse into this quaint agricultural town’s premier wine industry.

In the late 1990’s, having lost their largest employer, Walla Walla could have easily collapsed like so many of its neighbors. Thanks to the foresight of a few leaders from the community college and the wine industry, the town flourished. Walla Walla has become Washington state’s unofficial wine hub: it is now home to 170 wineries, tasting rooms and wine bars as well as several large annual wine tasting festivals.

The cultivation of a collaborative solution

Steven Van Ausdle, the President of Walla Walla Community College at the time, was determined to play his part in economic development by examining the agricultural industry and potential opportunities for growth. Walla Walla has long been known as one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the nation, producing such crops as wheat, asparagus, strawberries, and sweet onions.

But now, some of it’s most important crops are the 15 different types of grapes cultivated for wine production. Van Ausdle’s goal was to develop an enology and viticulture program to train the community’s dislocated workers and propagate their agricultural industry. He approached the 14 local wineries for assistance; their response was overwhelming. Together, they privately funded the enterprise and the 25,000 sq ft facility that houses the college’s program. The total cost for the building alone was $5.2 million, $4 million of which was funded by local industry.

The local industry helped design the building and the founding winery members were directly involved with curriculum development. They wanted a practical, concrete hands-on program in order to to supply the trained workforce needed for industry growth. It worked.

The impact of success

Together, Walla Walla Community College and industry leaders developed and launched the Enology and Viticulture Program in 2002 and the Institute for Enology and Viticulture opened in 2004. This collaborative venture has directly impacted industry growth: a 2011 study by Walla Walla Community College found that the wine industry in the valley accounted for 6 percent of regional employment in 2006 and 14.5 percent just five years later, with a projection of 20 percent by 2020. The Washington State Wine Commission determined in 2015 that the industry in the valley pumps at least $500 million annually into the region’s economy.

Why the wine program worked

Students unloading grapes picked from the field

The College’s program director believed there would be no better way to teach people how to operate a vineyard than to actually produce wine. They decided to create their own winery. Program participants plant and maintain the vineyard, which produces 15 types of grapes used for the their own wine production. The 2-year degree program covers everything from grape growing and pressing to barreling, blending and tasting, all taught hands-on at the college’s vineyard and teaching winery.

They also created College Cellars, a non-profit LLC designed to provide students with real world job training, and which they hoped would pay for itself. Now, thanks to Donahue, they have a continual staff of 4-5 and a dedicated tasting room manager. Their motto is “from soil to sales; the students are taught it all.”

The wines they have produced have earned them approximately 700 medals in local and international competitions. The money it generates goes back into the program and supports several yearly scholarships.

Partnerships for growth

In addition to partnerships with industry leaders for development, WWCC utilizes multiple employer partnerships for continued growth and success.

The school is also home to a John Deere training facility, which developed a working relationship with the enology and viticulture program. This relationship allows students to utilize tractors, agricultural software equipment, and other resources they would not otherwise have access to.

They maintain another vital partnership with ETS laboratories, a wine lab that performs chemistry and microbiological analysis of wine. The Lab sponsors educational development, so they provide all the analysis on the program’s wine free of charge, a service that would otherwise cost the college $50-$75K a year.

“Winery owners wanted sleeves-rolled-up, job-ready graduates that could help build the region,” and this is exactly what they got. A recent survey of graduates found that over 80% are working in the wine industry as vineyard managers, winemakers, cellar workers, and wine sellers with incomes ranging from $25,000-$55,000 annually. Having opened their own successful wineries in Walla Walla, 25 of their students are literally reaping what they sow. This unique program demonstrates how one community college was able to respond to a rapidly changing regional economy, contribute to growing an industry, and positively impact residents’ lives.

How are other small towns responding when a single major employer leaves town?