The future of any industry depends on the skill of its work force. In the wine industry, that means a marriage of modern innovation with ancient tradition, the techniques and customs honed over centuries in Old World vineyards. Passing that knowledge to future generations is a challenge being embraced across Washington State as educators and wine industry leaders take a close look at the education and training available for workers.

A survey conducted last fall for the state’s wine industry by Futureworks Consulting LLC of Seattle revealed concern about education resources, both in the field and in the winery. Brian Bosworth, president of Futureworks, said his review of the programs in place today sed a solid education network for students seeking certificates, two-year, and even four-year degrees. But, he added, there is plenty of room to grow.

Wine-related education programs span the state, with most of the viticulture programs clustered on the east side of the Cascades. They include a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology at Washington State University, offered at the Pullman and Tri-Cities campuses; a two-year viticulture or enology certificate offered through WSU’s Extension program; a two-year Associate in Applied Science degree in enology or viticulture at Walla Walla Community College, as well as a one-year certificate option; and a two-quarter certificate program in viticulture offered at Wenatchee Valley College. The four-year World Wine Program at Central Washington University includes some course work on viticulture, but focuses on the business and marketing of wine. "They’re sound, they’re headed in the right direction," Bosworth said. "The trajectory is good, but more scale is needed."

For example, he said that the programs often are not well coordinated between the institutions offering them, with lots of confusion about transferring credits and moving seamlessly from one program to another. It’s not always possible, he said, to build an associate degree into a bachelor’s degree. And he said the number of students enrolled in WSU’s viticulture and enology program is troubling, and likely to fall short of needs. At the current rate, the university is holding steady, graduating 12 to 15 students as viticulture and enology majors each year.

Credit transfer is not a concern to Valerie Fayette, director of Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program. Many people entering the wine industry, she pointed out, bring lots of education and life experience, and aren’t necessarily looking for a degree. More than half of the students enrolled at WWCC already have a bachelor’s degree, or even a doctorate, and have no plans to graduate from the program, although she agreed that the industry needs to better coordinate its education. In fact, Fayette said, she’s already had conversations with other education leaders about revitalizing the Washington Viticulture and Enology Education ­Consortium, a key mover behind WSU’s viticulture and enology program, as well as WWCC’s program. Fayette said the group will most likely meet before the end of ­February.

Field-worker gap

But the biggest educational gap might be even lower on the ladder. The survey also revealed worries about field workers, the crews that supply the labor for Washington’s growing wine industry. Ninety-four percent of those who responded were concerned about the availability of a trained work force in the future. Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards, moderated a discussion at the Wine Industry Summit in November about semiskilled labor. "Who wants to see more education opportunities for employees working at minimum wage and up?" he asked the group. Everyone in the room raised a hand.

A potential labor shortage in the years ahead means growers are more interested in maintaining the work force they’ve got. The experience and knowledge learned in the field—what Waliser calls "tribal knowledge"—becomes more valuable as trained workers become scarcer. But education for that group, the kind of training that keeps workers in place, is spotty and difficult to access, according to growers and winery owners at the summit meeting.

Of the programs available to field workers, Wenatchee Valley College’s Latino Agriculture Education Program shines. Now in its third year, the Latino program was developed with support from the wine industry, according to Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers Executive Director Vicky Scharlau, and is modeled on the successful Hispanic Orchard Employees Education ­Program.

Language barrier

Discussions of training for field workers almost always return to language. "If you offered an ESL (English as a Second Language) class today, Klipsun Vineyard would fill it," said Julia Kock, Klipsun’s vineyard manager, during a discussion at the summit meeting about the education available to semiskilled field workers.

Kock explained that the language barrier is her biggest challenge in finding training for her workers. In the past, she said, Klipsun has enrolled employees in the Latino education program, but it requires a basic level of English that many of her workers don’t have.

She would like to see ESL offered on a schedule that a vineyard worker could attend—over the winter when field work is limited. "We would pay for them to go if we could find the classes," she said.

Illegal status

Waliser said the root of the language problem runs deeper than just class schedules. Education is the biggest factor in developing a stable work force, he said, but immigration issues too often get in the way. "We’re trying to find people interested in taking ESL classes, but it’s been tough. The schools don’t want to acknowledge that they might be educating illegal immigrants, and the ­illegals won’t sign up for the class. The growers are stuck in a position where you just do the best you can."

Waliser’s workers have been enrolled in both the Latino education program and its prototype, the Hispanic Orchard Employee Education Program. Sagemoor pays all the costs, he said, including the employees’ time and travel expenses. "We’ve invested quite a bit, but I think it’s important."

Kock said that in the future she’d like to see more "tailgate" classes – short, two- or three-hour-long seminars taught in Spanish, on location in the vineyard, covering topics like safety skills, chemical applications, pruning and canopy management. That kind of training is important, she said, because "it improves the safety and health of the workers. Overall, it makes us a better vineyard."