How government and business worked together to grow an industry in Walla Walla.
It’s hard not to like Walla Walla, a small city (population: 32,000) in the verdant southeastern corner of Washington whose unofficial motto is “the city so nice, they named it twice.” Tyler Tennyson fell in love with the place. When he lost his real estate job, he and his wife left Seattle to turn their hobby–making wine–into a profession.
Tennyson enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s two-year wine program. The story of Walla Walla’s wine program began in the late 1970s, when the first modern winery opened in the region. By 2000, there were about 20, and local vintners realized they needed more people to keep the industry growing.
So a group worked with Walla Walla Community College president Steven VanAusdle to create a viticulture program. The college raised $5 million in private money; by 2003, the center for Enology and Viticulture was up and running. Three years later, it had its own building, including a state-of-the-art teaching commercial winery, the award-winning College Cellars. The program also has its own vineyard. Local wine professionals helped design the curriculum and facilities to make sure graduates were job ready.
The two-year program now admits up to 30 people at a time; students start during the annual “crush” and learn grape selection, growing, harvesting, fermenting, barreling, blending, and marketing. Graduates get a complete set of working skills, as well as two internationally recognized certificates, one in viticulture, the other in enology.
“It’s a book education but also a practical one,” says Tennyson, who graduated in 2011 and is cellar master at nearby Seven Hills Winery. Most graduates stay in the region, and job placement is more than 80 percent. There are about 120 working wineries in the Walla Walla region, and the industry supports almost 15 percent of local jobs, up from less than 1 percent in 1997.
No one gives WWCC’s program all the credit, but it has been catalytic. Says Norm McKibben, of the Pepper Bridge Winery and one of the original advisers, “When we got started, there weren’t many wineries. I never would have guessed how successful it would become.”