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Monday, Dec. 29, 2008

Student-created wine takes second place in Tri-City competition

David Volmut gave up his information technology career in the Midwest a few years ago to pursue his passion for wine.

Now in his second year of the Winery and Vineyard Technology program at Yakima Valley Community College in Grandview, the 40-year-old Richland man has some brass to show for his hard work: A silver medal he and his classmates' 2007 Teacher's Pet Rose won at the recent Tri-Cities Wine Festival.

"I think it gives us some good recognition that we can make a decent bottle of wine," Volmut said.

The rose was one of eight student-created wines to receive medals at the 30th annual wine festival, which was held in Pasco in early November.

Wine schools were first invited to participate in the festival in 2007, said Mary Binder, communications chairwoman for the Tri-Cities Wine Society, which sponsors the event.

"It's another opportunity for the schools to get exposure," she said. "As they get exposure, hopefully it will help their programs and ... ultimately the whole industry."

Students from the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle Community College won three silvers and two bronzes.

And two wines from College Cellars of Walla Walla, a part of Walla Walla Community College, won bronze medals.

Jim Harbertson, one of the festival judges, said he was pleased with the student wine entries.

He praised them for their balance and complexity of flavors.

"They're getting good hands-on training," Harbertson said. "I think it's a unique opportunity for these students to see how to make nice wines."

This is the second year wines from the Northwest Wine Academy have been entered into the competition and awarded, said Reggie Daigneault, wine technology coordinator.

"It encourages them to go on and do their own thing," she said. "It also verifies a little bit what we're doing."

The program, which has three certifications and about 120 students, is in response to the need for more skilled workers in the wine industry.

"We're trying to encourage new people and people who've been making wine to use us as a resource," Daigneault said.

The program at YVCC is in its second official year and entered the Tri-Cities Wine Festival for the first time this year, said Trent Ball, chair of the agriculture program.

Students get to do everything from picking and processing fruit to bottling.

"We do everything hands-on that you can think of," Ball said. "We try to expose them to the whole series."

That includes the business side of the equation. Two incubator spaces at the school eventually will offer graduates a place to start their own wineries, he said.

Having a winery at Walla Walla Community College -- College Cellars of Walla Walla -- gives students there a taste of the marketing side of the equation, said Valerie Fayette, director of the Center for Enology and Viticulture.

Students get their hands involved in the winemaking process practically from day one with fall harvesting and crushing. Then they get to see the finished bottle of wine that's ready for sale, Fayette said.

The program enrolls 35 to 40 students each year and 60 percent of them come from outside the state, she said.

Harbertson, a professor at Washington State University's research station in Prosser, said the Washington wine industry needs to attract more talented people to the area to create a community of winemakers.

It's happened in Walla Walla and is starting in Prosser, he said.

"That's what we need in other parts of the state as well," Harbertson said.

A recent study sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission surveyed businesses in the wine industry. The study showed a need for employees with all levels of training, from vineyard managers to lab technicians to field workers.

In the meantime, students like Volmut are testing the winemaking waters.

"For the most part it's been a good experience," he said. "I didn't know what to expect."