GRANDVIEW — One of the first things students learn in science class is to not eat or drink anything in the lab, but that’s not the case here.
On a recent Thursday, Bonnie Wescott sipped a glass of Chardonnay poured straight from a beaker to determine if her wine blend was acidic enough.
Wescott is one of about 40 students in Yakima Valley College’s Vineyard and Winery Technology Program, now entering its 10th year.
Since its inception a decade ago, 45 students have graduated from the program, said agriculture instructor and program chairman Trent Ball.
That relatively small number is due, in part, to the significant number of students who leave the program early for full-time winery positions, he said.
The experience gained using the program’s winery, laboratory, tasting room and commercial-grade winemaking equipment makes these students especially attractive to Washington wineries.
“The industry is booming here, so sometimes we have students that will come for a couple quarters and then leave to go work at a winery,” Ball said.
And wine critics say the students make good wine.
Yakima Valley Vinters, the college’s teaching winery, has won 80 awards for its wines, most recently Wine Press Northwest’s “Best of the Best” Platinum Judging for its 2013 Dean’s List Tempranillo and the 2013 Primitivo.
The students who stick around can earn an associate’s degree in winery or vineyard technology, where they’ll learn every aspect of working in a winery, including the science and math needed to make the wine, management and operations skills, safety and even government compliance.
YVC also offers a certificate in wine sales.
The first year is full of basics and book work, said second-year student Amie Thornton. But the second year is when things really get fun.
Students work through the whole process of making wine, from picking the grapes to putting the finished product in bottles.
“Crushing the grapes is where the real fun starts. You’re going to get wet and you’re going to get dirty, but it’s fun,” Wescott said.
Last week, the winemaking class was working through arguably the most challenging part of making wine: creating a good blend.
Before bottling the wine in mid-February, students each choose a variety of wine and make small changes to its acidity, sugar content or blend with other wines to produce their best version of the variety.
“Each individual is in charge of a wine as a primary blender, and then the class is really involved. We put something together, we rank them and get feedback and then the students take that feedback and go back and make adjustments and then we taste again,” Ball said.
On Thursday, the class took one of its Semillion blends and did a blind tasting for Roger and Kenna Hazzard, owners of Bon Vino’s Bistro and Bakery in Sunnyside, to learn what types of wines their clientele would be interested in.
This practice also teaches students how to work with clients to craft a wine unique to that buyer, Ball said.
That’s just one of the opportunities students have to work with people in the real winery world. They can work in the tasting room; with small wineries using the college’s winery equipment through the winery incubator program; or at events such as the program’s participation in Red Wine & Chocolate, the Yakima Valley wine industry’s February event weekend, in which students pair chocolates with the college’s wines, said Professor Melodie Smith.
“They’re not just saying, ‘I took a class and I learned a lot.’ They’re saying, ‘I took this class and did these specific things,’ and then they can put it on their resume,” she said.
It’s that hands-on approach that students say makes the program so fun.
“That’s the one thing about Trent and this program. He just says, ‘OK, what do you want to try? Oh, you read about that technique? Let’s try it,’” Wescott said, speaking about the class’ experience making orange wine.
“I think one of the highlights about this program is we get to try the things we read about.”