New community college programs provide practical training in skills required by local wine industry.
The East Coast wine industry is growing—and finding itself increasingly in need of educated workers. But a four-year education is not necessarily a requirement. County colleges offer certificate and associate programs that often prepare students more specifically for what local wineries need and, in turn, provide local wineries with the skilled employees needed to keep the growing industry thriving.
Camden County College in Blackwood, NJ, is launching their Viticulture Certificate Program in the spring 2022 semester and will incorporate an on-campus teaching vineyard. The program is designed to meet two needs in the region’s wine industry.
“The demand for New Jersey wine is exceeding the supply of grapes that we have,” says Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli, Jr., who helped get the county college program going. “By growing more grapes, we hope to help the wine industry.”
The second reason for the program is to train students to work within the state’s wine industry, which has grown over 47 percent in the last decade.
Though the program is in its infancy, the ultimate goal is to provide students with an official certification that will entice the local wine industry to turn to the college for new hires, comments Don Borden, President of Camden County College. As they build the program, the college is looking to other county colleges with viticulture and enology programs for guidance.
Non-traditional Students Are the Norm
Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) in Charlottesville, VA, offers certificate programs in enology, viticulture, and tasting room management. Jake Busching, viticulture instructor at PVCC and owner at Jake Busching Wines calls his students “non-traditional.”
“What we’ve found is that we aren’t getting people coming through [these classes] who want to work in the industry as much as we’re getting landowners who want to plant vineyards. We’re getting an older age group,” Busching says.
The older student population makes sense. It’s a challenge to get young people interested in studying a product they can’t legally consume.
Gina Lee, viticulture program coordinator at Finger Lakes Community College in Geneva, NY, says that about 75 percent of her students also fit the same non-traditional category as Busching’s.
Lee also notes that her student base is bucking the male-dominated reputation of the wine industry: In the most recent years, at least 45 percent of the viticulture program’s enrollees have been women. “We have had classes where there have been more women than men,” she says. Though the pandemic slowed down the partnership, the school plans to work with non-profit organization The Roots Fund to distribute scholarships and increase diversity within the program.
Hands-On Training is Required
At Surry Community College in Dobson, NC, the average age of students in the wine-related certificate tracks is late 30s to early 40s, according to Sarah Bowman, viticulture instructor.
“We have around 15 to 20 actively enrolled students in any one given academic year,” she says. About two-thirds are male; one-third is female. Because many come from an agricultural background, students are from a “fairly diverse ethnicity.” About half the students are there for a second or third career.
Students in the program learn more than theory. The on-campus demonstration vineyard that grows grapes for the fully bonded on-campus winery provides students—regardless of age or career status—with a hands-on, practical education.
“Students are involved every step of the way,” says Bowman. That means learning to grow, prune, and pick grapes in the viticulture classes, of course; and crush, pump into tanks, pump over, punch down, and ferment in the enology classes. But students also complete the program trained in safe tractor operation, certified in forklift operation, and licensed in pesticide applications.
Students who come out of four-year winemaking programs sometimes don’t have those practical skills. This can make them, despite their degree, difficult to employee for the salary most wineries on the East Coast can afford to pay.
“In California, if you want to be a winemaker, you pretty much have to have the four-year degree. If you don’t have the credentials, you’re not a winemaker. And here,” says Piedmont’s Busching, referring to East Coast regions, “you don’t have to have those credentials. Experience is more important because we’re so tiny, you have to be able to do everything.”
Industry Input is Essential
“We’re directly involved with business and industry, asking them what we need to provide in terms of an education that will give them the [well-rounded] skills they’ll need to work in the industry,” says Camden County’s Borden.
At Finger Lakes Community College, an advisory group consisting of representatives from local wineries meets at least two times each year. Faculty are also regularly I contact with industry professionals.
“Our students in the two-year degree program and the certificate program have to complete internships,” says Lee. “That gives the program a bird’s eye view of industry needs.” And, an impressive 50 percent of their students are hired by the winery where they intern.
Robin Shreeves is a drinks journalist and lifestyle features writer. Her wine writing has appeared in dozens of print and online publications including Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Courier Post, Spirited magazine, Edible Philly, Edible Jersey, USA Today, and Drink Philly. She holds a Level 3 wine certification and Advanced Wine Speaker certification from the National Wine School. Robin is also cofounder of Thinking Outside the Bottle that offers content writing for drinks brands.