Schoolyard Crush

At Napa Valley College, winemaking is literally par for the course


What does college look like in the Napa Valley? Sight unseen, it surely conjures up unrealistic expectations of a campus fronted by a lush carpet of verdant vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes gently purpling in the cool breeze from the bay, a tree-lined country lane that leads to a little winery perched on a hill where students do nothing but crush grapes and make wine all day, holding class around a barrel head.

Funny thing is, that’s all completely true.

What’s not funny is that the entire California community college system is enduring an unprecedented era of stretched budgets and tightened belts. From higher fees to fewer classes, every department is feeling the squeeze. At Napa Valley College, one department is working hard to pay its own way—and have fun doing it. By selling wine, of course.

It’s been a long time coming, considering that this college is located in the heart of America’s best-recognized wine region. Although the college’s vineyards were first planted in the late 1980s, the dream of a fully operational student winery endured a somewhat longer hang-time before its fruition. The Napa Valley Vintner’s Teaching Winery was constructed in 2002, but it took an act of the California state legislature—Senate bill 220, sponsored by Sen. Wes Chesbro—to allow the college to sell wine, normally prohibited on K-14 campuses.

The winery bond, a first for a California community college, was obtained September 2008, just in time for the harvest. Being bonded allows the winery to legally store and market the wine that it makes, up to a specified amount, like 1,000 cases. Two hundred cases were put up for sale in the fall of 2009; production rose to 600 cases this year.

If there is one class that students are avid to attend, it surely must be wine class. But while NVC’s viticulture and winery technology department is the natural starting place for freshman vintners, younger students are the exception, says instructor Bryan Avila. In fact, the average student age is about 40. “We have cellar rats looking to move up the crush pad,” Avila lists, “and career changers, retirees and people starting their own wineries.”

Avila, who doubles as the college’s official winemaker, is UC Davis&–trained and has extensive experience in the industry, yet he readily admits to being upstaged by the educational background and professional experience of his students. There’s something about the humble grape that lures scientists, doctors and airline pilots with its siren song. But sing it does, and the college offers several paths for both the dabbler and the career-path student to succeed in squishing it into it boozy juice.

On the southern edge of the campus, the original enology classroom is set adjacent to a neat block of knobby-trunked olive trees, just like any proper Napa Valley winery. Several decades’ worth of choice empties ring the room—relics of wine appreciation classes. Here students may diverge from Intro to Enology into wine science and analysis classes, leading toward an advanced winemaking degree, or into the winery operations series, with a focus on cellar management. The viticulture and winery technology department program includes a one-year certificate and a two-year associate of science option.

The newer winery building holds all of the toys. Petite fermentation tanks, boutique-sized presses and a laboratory with a nearly complete suite of testing equipment give staff and students full control of the vinting process. While Avila allows that winery internships—harvest and crush jobs that typically last two to four months—are an important part of paying one’s dues, the actual learning is often limited to washing bins. At Napa Valley College, students are exposed to the full range of operations, and the reward can be better, too.

“We have a good relationship with the industry,” Avila says. “They’re very involved.” Avila helps to place students in winery positions, and wineries are increasingly interested in recruiting students from the program.

To help the teaching facility attain a contemporary level of quality, area wineries have donated equipment, including a conveyor and sorting table that allows for triple-sorting of grapes. The winery’s secondary warehouse is cluttered with still more well-intentioned donations like clean boxes and biological reactors, which, while not exactly suitable for the vinting of Chardonnay—malalactic fermentation or not—helps the department’s bottom line when sold second-hand to interested companies. A temperature-controlled barrel room fits several dozen premium French and American oak barrels, as well as pallets loaded with student projects in kegs, five-gallon glass jugs and odds lots.

But the school’s wines are no mere experiments. Wines are professionally made under Avila’s supervision with an experienced staff assistant, winemaker Greg Siewert. Pricing the wines was a research exercise in itself. Students in the marketing class fanned out to local stores and gathered prices for Napa Valley estate wines of comparable varietals. Averaging them out, they arrived at fair, competitive prices. The program’s wines have tested well against others in a blind tasting.

The wines are not available at the local grocer quite yet, but may be ordered through the winery’s new ecommerce site and picked up on campus. On May 25, the winery holds its Bud Break and Bloom Spring Release Party, featuring the newly released 2008 Estate Syrah ($25), 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($18), 2009 Vintner’s Cuvée White ($10) and 2008 Vintner’s Cuvée Red ($12) served replete with food pairings.

The 2009 Vintners Cuvée White is a blend of whites, including 14 percent Muscat, contributing to its floral, racy bouquet, perfect when chilled for summer sipping, while the red is mainly a Cabernet blend. They’re pretty good wines—fine wines, in fact, a serendipitous byproduct of their main mission, says Avila, who jokes that the winery’s unofficial tagline is “We make fine winemakers.”

The Bud Break and Bloom Spring Release Party in the Vineyards is slated for Tuesday, May 25, from 5:30pm to 8:30pm. 2277 Napa-Vallejo Hwy., Napa. Free.

Sonoma County Library