• Brad Smith, instructor at Yakima Valley College’s Vineyard and Winery Technology Program, treats tasting room visitors (from left): Kylie Booker, Mikaela Cleveringa and Colleen Kissel to a taste of student-made 2015 Mid Term Merlot. Photo by Ivory Leininger.

Yakima Valley Vintners: One of the great secrets of the Washington wine industry

Students immerse themselves in every aspect of the grape growing and wine making process at Yakima Valley College in Grandview, WA.

By Jay Frank

Director of Community Relations

Yakima Valley College  

Wines made by students at Yakima Valley Vintners have won many medals over the years. Here, Trent Ball, head of the College’s Vineyard and Winery Technology Program, is flanked by his wife, Kate (left) and former student Bonnie Wescott as he accepts the Best of Class medal for the 2018 Study Skills Chardonnay his students entered at the 2018 Tri-Cities Wine Festival.

Spend an afternoon in the 18-seat tasting room at Yakima Valley Vintners in Grandview, WA. and you’ll probably hear it. It’ll come, likely, from one of your fellow visitors, between pours: “Boy, I wish they had this when I was in college!”

The tasting room at Yakima Valley Vintners, operated by students of Yakima Valley College’s Vineyard and Winery Technology program, is one of the great secrets of the Washington wine community.

Consider the double-paned window next to the bar, revealing a hulking silhouette – a six-foot clay amphora, the ancient vessel once favored by Greek and Egyptian winemakers. Scan the bookshelves opposite, where bottles of award-winning wines crowd out text books bluntly titled “Soils in Our Environment,” or “Chemistry.” It’s a room built for conversation.

The College’s on-campus vineyard is the teaching ground for students to get hands-on experience in vineyard management.

“You get a sense right away of what kind of hands-on program it is,” explains Trent Ball, head of the College’s Vineyard and Winery Technology program. “We give an experience that is valuable to a new wine drinker, to maybe ask questions you wouldn’t ask at another winery, and it’s also a wonderful spot for connoisseurs who want to dive in a little bit deeper.”

For those aficionados, a “deeper dive” into the student-produced wines poured in the tasting room is richly rewarding. Wine Press Northwest gave Yakima Valley Vintners’ 2015 Mid-Term Merlot a Platinum Award at its 2018 judging.  It’s a wine crafted by students Kathleen Lodahl, Eduardo Rivera, Luis Rivera, Amie Thornton, and Bonnie Wescott.

At the 2018 Tri-Cities Wine Festival, students took home a double Gold and Best of Class for their 2018 Study Skills Chardonnay.  Fruit for this wine came from a former student and now vineyard owner, Calvin Mercer of Austin Sharp Vineyards.  The students involved in making this wine included Robert Campos, Sangeetha Kunhiraman, Tara Piraneo, Sabrina Strieck, Ivan Villalpando and Ryan Wyatt. These awards were just the latest in a long line of medals (125-plus) won in regional competitions. Impressive, given fewer than 100 wines have been crafted since inception of the program.

Most years, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Primitivo are common varieties that come into the winery, but each year brings unique surprises; Albariño, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Grenache, and Lemberger are among the varieties recently included in the portfolio. During the blending process, the student winemakers decide whether to craft single varietals for the final wine, or whether to create blends. Students interject their artistic style into the wines they are blending, leaving their legacy and trademark on the wines they create.

Trent Ball (in brown jacket) and students (from left) Amie Thornton, Bonnie Wescott and Eduardo Rivera sample wine from the white wine filtration system in the Teaching Winery’s cellar.

Ball and his students have produced wines this way under the Yakima Valley Vintners label since the spring of 2008, long enough for Ball to see many former students blossom into leadership roles throughout the northwest wine industry.

“They are the ones who really establish our reputation,” Ball says. “That’s the part that is exciting and fun, seeing them doing great things and becoming advocates for the program. Our goal is to serve the industry, to provide skilled individuals who will take the industry into the future.”

Past students now work in vineyards and wineries up and down the Yakima Valley, but they remain connected.  In fact, many graduates now contribute fruit back to the program, as seen in the student produced Full Circle Cabernet Sauvignon. Others have stepped into starting their own wineries.

All students have the advantage of working in a Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certified vineyard. Tucked behind the tasting room on campus, this is the smallest LIVE-certified vineyard in the state. It’s the teaching ground for students to get hands-on experience with vineyard management practices.  Whether you intend to be a grape grower or winemaker, this program provides practical training to be successful in the industry.

Students like Emilse Osorio get hand-on experience in the College’s lab learning how to test various properties of wine.

The program serves between 30 to 40 students at any given time, offering the degree options of Winery Technology or Vineyard Technology, with certificate options as well. Some students are hired as part-time tasting room attendants. The marketing and sales component of the wine industry play an integral role in their studies; YVC’s facility also serves as an incubator space for selected professional wineries, who share their industry expertise while working alongside YVC students.

“The Washington wine industry is thriving today,” said Lee Fergestrom, general manager of Fortuity Cellars, one of two incubators located at the Yakima Valley College Grandview Campus. “As we look to future growth and successes, we must invest in the next generation of vintners, growers and technicians. YVC’s Winery Technology Program is doing just that.”

Visitors to the Yakima Valley Vintners tasting room should come prepared to sample a wide variety of wine styles, a sometimes-eclectic mix inspired by the program’s mission to educate and encourage innovation. “We operate our winery very much like a research facility,” Ball explains. “Students drive the direction of what that vintage is going to look like as they are the primary decision makers, making correctable and guided decisions.”

In the tasting room, the back stories of these vintages are shared, while visitors are encouraged to observe the teaching winery in action, which includes use of the program’s amphora.

“Winemaking continues to evolve, and that now includes an effort to go back to some historical methods of producing wine, often with concrete or stone,” Ball says. “It’s an opportunity for students to experience the difference in aroma and mouth feel texture that a vessel can create on the finished product.”

The tasting room will open under regular hours on Friday, April 26 and will stay open through Thanksgiving. Tasting room hours from April 26 through Thanksgiving are 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.  Otherwise, the room is open by appointment, and is often opened to groups and tours. As for sales, Ball says the program is “self-sustaining,” with proceeds from wine sales going back into the program for buying barrels, consumable goods, packaging, basic equipment and supplies.

Yakima Valley Vintners’ wines are available at select supermarkets in the Yakima Valley, and online at www.yakimavalleyvintners.com.   For those who want a deeper educational experience, YVC opens some of its courses to the public, including grape growing, winemaking, and wine sensory.

Yakima Valley Vintners Tasting Room is located at the corner of Wine Country and Grandridge Roads, in Grandview, WA. Phone: (509) 882-7069. For more information on YVC’s Vineyard and Winery Technology program, visit: www.yakimavalleyvintners.com.