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Sunday, Mar. 29, 2009

Yakima Valley college teaches the language of wine

GRANDVIEW, Wash. - As a production supervisor for Columbia Crest in Paterson, Armando Pena knows all about how to care for grape vines.

But he learned the "whys" of what he was doing in a viticulture class a few years ago and now has a much deeper understanding of his work.

"It give you more knowledge," Pena said. "You're adding the knowledge you had, plus ... what they taught you in that class. You're putting them together and ... now you know why the (manager) is asking you to do it."

Pena is one of about 50 people who have graduated from the Bilingual Agriculture Education Program's Introduction to Viticulture Program.

About half of them received their certificates Friday as the program graduated its third class.

Leo Garcia and Francisco Sarmiento, both of Wenatchee Valley College, teach the course.

It's an adaptation of a similar class they teach for tree fruit workers that got started about 15 years ago, Garcia said.

Aside from the viticultural knowledge students gain, they also come to understand the industry better and become more confident, Sarmiento said.

"I consider the actual learning a small part," Garcia said. "The most important part is self-discovery, empowerment, the growth, the opportunity to think more like a supervisor rather than just an employee."

The three employees at Milbrandt Vineyards who have taken the class appreciated learning about plant science and viticulture, said Jim McFerran, director of vineyard operations and viticulturist for Milbrandt.

On top of that, he's seen them become better leaders.

"They've all taken on more responsibility," McFerran said. "They're better organized. They have a better understanding of what our industry is all about."

They're aren't just workers anymore, he added. "They feel more a part of the growing community."

Participants spend a lot of time together and after a few weeks of class, they start sharing resources and information, Garcia said.

"It's kind of all of a sudden people realize there are a lot of people out there that do same thing they do," he said.

Pena said lessons addressing public speaking helped him present successfully at two meetings of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

"The more you know the more you can help out your team," he said.

The grape growers association and others in the industry approached Garcia and Sarmiento a few years ago about adapting the horticulture curriculum to vineyard workers, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the association.

"(Education) is one of the key pieces. We have a huge need to make sure that those people that are caring (for) and managing vines understand the hows and whys. That's what this program does," she said. "We have to compete. The only way you're going to have quality grapes, quality wine is to have quality education from the ground up."

Students who take the class attend all-day sessions every Friday from November to April.

Classes are taught mostly in Spanish and subjects addressed go beyond grapes and vines to include applied English and math, civics, computer programs, management skills and more, Garcia said.

Participants earn 19 credits for the course, which costs about $1,200, he said.

Classes are at Yakima Valley Community College in Grandview and are presented by Wenatchee Valley College.

Often, students who participate get promotions and become managers, Sarmiento said. Some of those who have taken the horticulture courses have gone on to buy their own orchards, he added.

Garcia expects similar results from the viticulture program.

"I wouldn't be surprised as the years go by if ... some people actually buy a little vineyard," he said.

The two instructors already are planning a new class in the fall for those who are interested in advancing their viticulture education.

"(The introduction class) whets the students' appetite to keep learning and continue going to school," Garcia said. "We're very excited to do the next level."

They may even teach both the beginner and advanced levels if students express enough interest, he said.

Pena said he's still excited about all that he learned from the class a few years ago.

And he said he's already talked to his manager about enrolling in the next level.

For more information about the program, call Garcia at 509-860-2267 or Sarmiento at 509-860-2283.