Entering the wine industry as a working professional can happen in many ways—from young tasting assistants to post-retirement winemakers, and everything in between. The viticulture and enology curriculum at Yavapai College caters to all walks of life, at every age, every career level and from the hobbyist to the career seeker.
The program at Yavapai College Verde Valley Campus is quickly gaining national attention since classes first launched in 2009, and the one-year, viticulture certificate was instated in 2011, according to Nikki Check, Director of Viticulture at Yavapai College. Check says there are currently about 65 students enrolled in the various tracks, including a new, two-year viticulture and enology degree, which became available in 2012. Whether traveling from out-of-state to attend or driving from just up the road, the viticulture program provides a wealth of knowledge and education—with brand new, hands-on vineyard experience right on campus, and soon at the Southwest Wine Center, which is slated to break ground this year.
In a wine industry like Arizona’s, growing and gaining national recognition like never before, Yavapai College may be fostering some of the state’s next entrepreneurial vineyard operators, winemakers, marketers and pourers as we speak.
In spring 2014, Niles Johnson will walk with the first graduating class of the program. He is one of the first graduates, having completed the classes the previous year, and is well on his way to advancing his career in the industry. Johnson previously held a position as an instructional aid for developmentally disabled teenagers at Glendale Union High School District. After seven years, he left to finish a degree in art history and the rest is just that—history. Well, kind of. We’ll let him tell you for himself…
What initially sparked your interest in the program? Were there other programs you had considered and, if so, why did you choose Yavapai College?
“A simple question with a somewhat convoluted answer. Many factors in my life led to a sort of ‘aha’ moment. I initially developed an affinity for wine in high school. At the time my friends and I had made somewhat convincing fake IDs and working a part-time job as a grocery bagger meant that my budget was a bit limited. I found that the jug of Carlo Rossi was a fantastic value. Eventually I moved on taking an interest in the varietals that I was drinking and discovering the rich cultural and historical significance of wine. It was this that truly solidified wine’s place as my beverage of choice, as history has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember.
“During the fifteen years that I lived in Phoenix, I noticed a yearning growing inside of me—a desire to escape the concrete sprawl, fast-paced life and simple lack of humanity that it seemed to engender in me. I wanted a more agrarian lifestyle, something more grounded, but I didn’t know how to achieve it. Every skill that I had developed at the time seemed to draw me toward a career in the city. At the end of one of my French courses, the instructor asked, like she did at the end of every class, what I was doing that evening. I responded in the same way that I had most evenings, ‘Je vais mange une nouvelle bouteille de vin,’ which means that I was going to eat a new bottle of wine—my French wasn’t that good. It was that moment when everything clicked, my interest in wine, the desire to leave the city and the need for a skill set that could make it happen.
“I started to scour the Internet in search of viticulture and enology programs. Initially it looked as if I was going to attend WSU [Washington State University], but then I ran across an obscure article from the Verde Independent about a possible viticulture program starting in Clarkdale. I had fallen in love with Arizona, and knew that, no matter what, my end goal was to remain in this state, so it made sense to learn about viticulture here rather than a place with a different climate. I started commuting from Phoenix to attend classes at Yavapai College as soon as I could, while simultaneously continuing my studies for my first degree in the Valley. This continued for roughly seven months, until the day that I finished my finals down in Phoenix and packed my belongings to resettle in Cottonwood.”
What were a couple of your favorite classes or experiences throughout the program?
“The first thing that comes to mind as a favorite project would be the processing of Cabernet Franc that was generously donated to the program by Merkin Vineyards. These were the first grapes that we students got to play with, and the excitement among us was a tangible thing. The quantity, relatively small by industry standards (half ton), proved to be quite time-consuming with the small-scale equipment that we had available to us at the time. It proved that the underlying concepts of enology are the same regardless of volume.
“Another major project that I will never forget is the planting of six acres of vines for the college. This was broken up into two major events, open to the public, three acres planted each year. The amount of volunteers that came from all over the state to lend a hand was astonishing and made me realize that I was involving myself in something extraordinarily special, something that had the power to bring all walks of life together toward a common goal.”
Do you feel you are fully prepared to work in the industry, and is there anything the program needs to work on improving in order to prepare future students for the industry?
“I felt that the program did an amazing job teaching me the science and theory of winemaking; however, it was lacking in practical application. It’s one thing to read how and why you perform pump overs and quite another to actually do it. The good news for future students is that when the Southwest Wine Center opens that will no longer be the case. The college will have students learning every aspect of wine production in a hands-on manner from the vineyard to the bottling line.”
What have you been doing since you completed the curriculum?
“Since finishing the classes, I have been fortunate enough to work in the tasting room for Page Springs Cellars and have been taken on as a cellar intern for Arizona Stronghold. The opportunities to learn and grow have been phenomenal at both places. A few classmates and I have been making slow-but-steady progress in converting my garage into an extremely small-scale winery with the goal of being able to continue learning and, hopefully, make some wines that we can share with pride.”
What are your future goals in the industry (and outside of the industry)?
“I want to do anything that I can to help the industry in the state prove to the world that it has what it takes to craft truly delicious wines, expressing a sense of place that is uniquely Arizona. On a more personal level, I want to make a wine that is the perfect accompaniment to friendship, laughter, happiness and community—all things that the Verde Valley has given me.”
Learn more at Viticulture.YC.edu
Article by Kimberly Gunning
Photos by Genesis-Photography.com
Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of AZ Wine Lifestyle.