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Best of Class

Author: Richard Paul Hinkle
April, 2010 Issue

NorthBay biz takes a look at three local learning institutions—Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and Napa Valley College—that are preparing students for careers in the wine industry.

It was the ’70s when you knew things were really changing. The evidence of that change was simple and obvious: The aristocrats who owned French chateaux were sending their children to UC Davis or CSU Fresno—or having them do an internship at a North Coast winery. The knowledgebase had shifted from tried and true (read, slow) to tested and examined (read, exciting). Suddenly, the New World was where it was at.

“That’s what I’ve always liked about college and education,” enthuses Merilark Padgett-Johnson, program coordinator and instructor of viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC). “There’s vibrancy to the exchange of ideas—to the ongoing discussion—that brings new ideas to bear and solves problems. The delight of education is we can create solutions and means of making things better.”

Santa Rosa Junior College

Padgett-Johnson came to SRJC in 2006 from the Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria (the heart of California’s “Central Coast” viticultural area), where, in eight years as the full-time coordinator and instructor, she’d taken its viticulture and enology program from three part-time instructors (including herself) and four courses to 17 instructors and 54 classes.

“That was a fun time, because I had tons of support from the industry,” she says. “I had only the occasional problem from the academic side, like when they questioned my wanting to keep the viticulture class starting time flexible because of the uncertainty of when harvest was going to begin. I put together the advisory board, wrote the curriculum and expanded the program when I went from part- to full-time teaching.”

She’s done similar work here in Santa Rosa since joining the viticulture program four years ago. “The viticulture program had been somewhat static, given that the position had been open for at least a year and enrollment was down. So my job was to write new courses, put the vitality back into the program and rebuild its reputation. Working with the language department, we instituted a Spanish class for the wine industry to make sure communications were open and accurate between managers and workers. We added a short course on grapevine physiology to help vineyard managers ensure they understood the vine and could get the highest-quality fruit possible. It’s so important these days, because the competition is so great and the standards are so high that you have to grow the best possible grapes to make wines of character.”

After the grapes are grown, it’s up to the students in the wine studies program to transform them into wine. “Actually, most of the grapes grown on our 68-acre vineyard at Shone Farm [west of the college, 650 acres in all] are sold to a number of Sonoma County wineries,” says wine studies program coordinator Bob Fraser. “But we were able to bond our winery two years ago and our first wine—the 2008 Shone Farm Chardonnay—has just been released and is for sale at Traverso’s.”

Fraser grew up on a farm…and never really wanted to leave. “Oh, yeah, I still have fruit trees in my backyard at home,” he says with amusement. “I was born in 1952 on a second-generation farm out in the Delta, in Clarksburg. It was—and still is, with my father and my brother—a diversified farm, growing alfalfa, sugar beets, corn, walnuts and the like. I went to Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, where I studied ag business and earned my master’s in 1974. I taught ag vocation at King City High School for seven years, then for three years in Kelseyville [in Lake County]. I spent four years importing fruit from Chile—mostly Bartlett pears—before coming to SRJC in 1984.

“At about that time, I’d moved to Cloverdale and become coordinator for the Cloverdale Citrus Fair’s wine competition, which led to my taking the same position with the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition 10 years ago. That association has been extremely beneficial to the junior college, which not only receives cash benefits from the competition but also receives a large number of the wines. Those wines are most helpful to our wine studies classes—how else might our students taste and evaluate some of the finest, most expensive wines? They’re also served at SRJC functions.”

He notes that, while the viticulture program has been around for more than 30 years (for many years, under the leadership of NorthBay bizVineWise” columnist Rich Thomas), wine studies is only a decade old. “At that time, we established the wine marketing fundamentals class, initially taught by David Stare, founder of Dry Creek Vineyard, and later by Woody Woodward and Rick Theis. Then we added a wine component class, which was taught by Bob Cabral, who’s now at Williams Selyem. At first, the wine classes were pretty much buried in the ag department, but as wine quality improved, the industry saw a greater need for classes, both at the associate degree level and at the certificate level.

“What we have now, in wine studies, are five areas available at both levels. First, there’s enology, in which most of our students—more than 1,000—are enrolled. Second is wine business and marketing. Third is wine evaluation. Then there’s an area called wines and vines, which is set up for people working in the business—like tasting room personnel—who need an overall view of the industry. Finally, we have the winery maintenance mechanic program, which is pretty hands-on.

“The interesting thing—the real trend these days—is that we have a lot of students who already have their bachelor’s degree in some other field, like liberal arts, who are coming back to school…because they need a job. They figure there are jobs in the wine industry, so it’s back to school for them.”

The winery came about when Measure A passed a few years ago and monies were made available to the wine studies program. “We’d been planning for a winery and suddenly we had some of the money we needed,” says Fraser. “We submitted our plans to [SRJC president] Dr. [Robert] Agrella and got the go-ahead to solicit the matching funds we needed to complete the project. Until then, any winemaking we’d done had been pretty much at an amateur level, with old basket presses and glass carboys. Now, with Gallo donating a half-million dollars and others kicking in, we were able to go into a space in the new Warren C. Dutton Agriculture Pavilion at Shone Farm with a state-of-the-art winery, complete with stainless steel tanks and refrigeration. We’re now making a little Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in addition to the Chardonnay.”

Fraser credits the 18 to 22 instructors from the industry, each of whom teaches many of the classes from a position of real-time knowledge and experience, “including Marie Gewirtz, who teaches public relations; Elizabeth Slater, who teaches direct marketing; and Pat Henderson, from Kenwood Vineyards Winery, who teaches winemaking. I remember taking a class over to A. Rafanelli Winery, and David himself came out to take us through a tasting of his excellent Zinfandels. We have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the local industry, which benefits everyone involved.”

Sonoma State University

A bit to the south, in Rohnert Park, Sonoma State University began its undergraduate wine marketing program in 1997, graduated its first class in 2001 and, a year ago, instituted an MBA program. Linda Nowak has been director of the Wine Business Institute for nearly three years. “It’s been a lot of fun! Now that we’ve had our graduates out there in the industry for a few years, we’ve received a lot of support from winery owners who know their work and know what we do. They know how what we do helps them—individually and the industry as a whole—so they’re more than willing to show up as a guest speaker for one of our classes and to support the program financially. The one thing about our program here is, it’s entirely self-supporting. We get no money at all from the state.”

Born in Bakersfield, Nowak spent her high school years in San Luis Obispo, where it was easy to slide into Cal Poly for a degree in economics. From there, it was off to Atlanta for her MBA (Mercer University) and St. Louis University for her doctorate in marketing and international business. That was in 1996.

“I came here then to teach business and marketing, and the dean asked if I could teach a class in wine marketing,” she says with a sly chuckle. “I said, ‘Sure,’ but was thinking in my mind, ‘What’s wine marketing?’ Now I know.

“Our MBA program is the only wine MBA in the country, and we’re pretty proud of that. We have five people on the faculty, and each one of them has a Ph.D. Two have their focus on strategies and human resources, one specializes in information systems, one in production and distribution, and one hones in on marketing. We now have 71 students in our undergraduate program and nearly two dozen in the MBA program. For the latter, we hold classes at night so they can maintain their regular job while completing the program.”

Nowak—a golf fanatic in her limited spare time (“My father was originally a golf pro in Texas and knew Ben Hogan personally”)—notes the faculty is working on online course offerings that will result in a certificate of completion at three levels. “We get queries from all over the United States, as well as from other countries. People want to be able to get this information, but many of them can’t come here to do so. There’s nothing like being able to access exactly the sort of information you need from afar. These classes are going to be extremely popular.”

She applauds her faculty for keeping current with what’s happening in the wine industry by devoting time to research. “Several are also publishing articles and books, and are thus quite in demand as respected speakers and resources. Our credibility is strong because of their academic background and their connections to the industry. We also have an advisory board of industry members, which provides guidance and additional support. As I mentioned, we’re externally funded. Gary Heck [Korbel] and Walt Klenz, who was then at Beringer, were wonderful in getting our fund-raising going at the outset of the program. We do half-day classes as a part of continuing education for the industry. We charge for those classes, so that helps fund our program. Wells Fargo is also very supportive. This is a great place to be because the industry is so supportive of what we do.”

Napa Valley College

On the other side of the proverbial hill, Napa is equally active in the wine and grape educational enterprise. Bryan Avila is the wine instructor and winemaker at Napa Valley College, where he works closely with viticulture instructor Dr. Stephen Kerbs. “I’ve been here for two years,” says the San Diego native. “I was hired to take the winemaking program from purely academic to commercial, to make the program real and hands-on. We bonded our winery in 2008 and our first year’s production sold out. We were the first community college in California to have a bonded winery.”

Avila’s experience includes a hitch in the Marine Corps, where he was a diesel mechanic. “My unit went to Iraq both times, but my tour of duty fell right in between the two deployments, so I feel pretty lucky,” he says. He worked a half dozen years in the retail industry—for Ralph’s Grocery and Nabisco—then got married, started at Sacramento Community College in animal science and entered UC Davis with the notion of going to veterinary school. “I did an internship in infectious disease research and began to think, ‘Why am I working against the microbes when I could be making wine and working with them?’ So I did an internship at Domaine Carneros…and fell completely in love with the whole of it. There was a good bit of science, which I loved, and a good bit of hard work. Hey, you get to drive a forklift. Isn’t that what the cellar rat experience is about?”

Upon graduation in 2001, he was hired by Gallo at Modesto to manage the research winery. “I tell people I got my masters degree at ‘UC Gallo.’ It was a great experience. It was like wine boot camp, working with 1,200 lots of wine. I got to plan and build the Livingston Pilot Winery, and it was just the right experience for what I’m doing here at Napa Valley College. We have a great mix of classes on the wine side, mostly lined up in five areas. We have classes for the cellar rats, the folks who move the hoses and, yes, get to drive the forklifts.

“Our core focus is to train the workforce that makes the wine in Napa Valley. Many of these students already work in a winery. They’re looking to make sense out of cellar orders, written by the winemaker, and improve their craft. Our classes are also a great fit for home winemakers looking to go pro, and winery marketing and salespeople often take our classes to refine their pitch.

“Many of our students are looking to change careers,” he continues. “A common example is the transition from the tasting room to the cellar. Some students are retirees or professionals who’ve had successful careers and decided they want to plant a vineyard and, perhaps, make wine. They’re looking to slide into something that’s more fun than what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years. No matter why they’re here, these people are all expected to understand what they’re talking about and be accurate in doing so.”

Which, in the end, is why any of us goes to school, whether in the first instance or as a returning student: To have an understanding of what we’re doing, and to be accurate in our expression of that experience.



In this Issue

Are You Covered?

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Family Roots

One of the oldest wineries along West Dry Creek Road in Sonoma County is A. Rafanelli Winery. Nestled on a knoll that offers a sweeping view of the valley, the rustic winery is still family-owned an...

Harvest Tunes

For those in the business of wine, music can be essential to the winemaking process. This year we asked a number of notable winemakers in Napa and Sonoma counties to share their music playlist prefe...

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