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The introductory viticulture course of the Hispanic Orchard Employee Education Program has been so successful that the community college leaders and industry partner, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, are now working to offer an advanced viticulture course this fall.

Since the viticulture program’s inception three years ago, the viticulture class of the HOEEP has graduated about 45 students. The viticulture class, patterned after Wenatchee Valley College’s hispanic orchard employee program, represents a unique partnership between Washington’s grape industry and Wenatchee and Yakima community colleges. Wenatchee college instructors Leo Garcia and Francisco Sarmiento traveled each week to teach the courses at Yakima Valley Community College’s Grandview campus.

During the November to March class, students learned about grape plant physiology, canopy management, soils, irrigation, plant nutrition, thinning, harvest, marketing, and vineyard financial management.

At this year’s graduation ceremony held at the Desert Wind Winery in Prosser in March, 20 students received their introduction to viticulture completion certificates. Employers, families, and friends came to celebrate the students’ accomplishments.

For many in the class, it’s been 15 years since they were in a classroom, studying and taking tests, said Leo Garcia, HOEEP program coordinator. In past classes, the average education level has been sixth grade. For some students with only low-level or no high school education, this was their first graduation ceremony.

At the urging of Washington’s wine grape industry, Garcia is developing the curriculum for a more advanced viticulture class that will cover integrated pest management, sustainable viticulture practices, and more.

Metamorphosis

In congratulating the class for their commitment to learning, Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the wine grape growers association, said that education has long been a priority for Washington’s wine industry. "We’ve always been dedicated to building programs to bring the industry up to a higher level so that we can continue to produce world-class wines," she said.

Keynote speaker Trent Ball, director of the agriculture department at Yakima Valley Community College, told the class he has seen a metamorphosis in the students. "From that first day, there’s the apprehension of ‘what did I get myself into’ and the nervousness. But then we start to see change and progress, skills enhanced, and your confidence level goes up."

Ball reminded the group that they now have new tools and resources in their toolbox and a new network of colleagues to tap into.

Class stars

Joaquin Alvarez, employee of Vinagium, LLC, with vineyards on Red Mountain, was selected by his classmates as the most improved student. Alvarez joined the company in 2006 when the limited partnership began planting its first vineyard. Damon La Londe of Vinagium, a strong supporter of the viticulture program, said that Alvarez was the second employee they have enrolled in the program. "Joaquin enrolled himself in an English-speaking class to improve his skills," La Londe said, adding that he is grooming Alvarez for more vineyard responsibilities.

Gonzalo Luna, who has worked for 12 years for Joe Hattrup, owner of Elephant Mountain Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, was awarded the outstanding viticulture student. Luna completed all homework assignments, had perfect attendance, and received the best grades of the class. Hattrup said the class gave Luna the "why" and science behind many of the vineyard practices they use and helped improve his skills.

One of the oldest and most appreciative members of the class was David Ayala, who will be 55 this year. Ayala began working in 1982 for Connor Lee Vineyards in Othello and with Tom Thorsen, vineyard consultant and manager. For Ayala, who has no high school education, the certificate is his first diploma.

"I’m not too old to learn," Ayala said, adding that he plans to take the advanced viticulture class and a winemaking class offered at Yakima Valley Community College. He said that he studied an hour every day for the class, has taken an English language class, and taught himself how to use the computer. "I say thank you, America, for giving me the chance to learn."

Sagemoor Vineyards of Pasco had two employees that completed the vineyard program. General Manager Kent Waliser said Sagemoor is committed to putting more of its workers in both the introductory and advanced programs. "It’s a tremendous program, and I’m willing to do anything I can to make sure that it’s successful."

Eight class members received perfect attendance awards: Joaquin Alvarez, David Ayala, Esteban Calderón, Miguel de la Mora, Pedro García, Efrén Licea, Luna, and Sara Moreno.

Other graduating members were: Marvella Alcántar, Edmundo Arreola, Regulo Bonilla, Rogelio García, Eliceo Gil, Adolfo Martin, Raymundo Medina, Andres Palencia, Becky Pickthorn, Francisco Ramírez, Hector Torres, and Marcial Torres.