By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture program, from which 280 students have graduated to date. Of those graduates, 77 are women.
Elizabeth Bourcier was a member of the very first graduating class, in 2003. Ari Nickolisen will be graduating this June, and will head to Oregon State University’s Viticulture and Enology bachelor’s program. Sabrina Lueck has been working and teaching at WWCC since 2011. All are poised to be a force in the wine industry.
Bourcier grew up in Kirkland, in a home where French and Italian wines were served and discussed at dinner. Lueck grew up in Victoria, B.C. sticking labels on bottles of the homemade wine her father made from kits. Nickolisen grew up in McMinnville, Oregon, working outdoors on her family’s blueberry and timber farms, developing a passion for plants.
Bourcier remembers clearly one night at dinner when, speaking of wine, her father said to her “You know, people study this!”
“I was in high school and the lightbulb went on,” she recalls. “I realized that I could learn to make wine.”
Her father heard that WWCC was going to be starting a winemaking program, and on a snowy day in 2001 the pair drove over Snoqualmie Pass to meet the program’s founder, Myles Anderson. Anderson welcomed Bourcier into the first class of the new Enology and Viticulture (EV) program.
Being in the first graduating class offered her some unique experiences. She recalls one day when her instructor Stan Clarke drove up in his minivan. “The back was filled with picking bins of Riesling,” she says. “The school had a new press, but nobody had ever used it. Stan gave us the grapes, told us to have fun, and wished us good luck. And so I read the manual and figured out how to press the grapes.”
Now she’s the Assistant Vigneronne at Cayuse Vineyards, helping to create its highly-regarded biodynamic wines. In addition she has her own micro-label, La Rata, that produces just one critically-acclaimed wine per year. She’s also a member of the Advisory Board of the EV program, where she was instrumental in getting a training course offered by the college for Hispanic vineyard workers to increase their knowledge of English.
Ari Nickolisen came to the program with a wealth of practical experience. In 2011, the same year Lueck joined the EV program, Nickolisen was selling flowers and tending bar in McMinnville. There, in the epicenter of Oregon’s wine region, she met a lot of wine industry people.
“I was pouring Oregon wines, and customers would ask me about them, and I had no idea what to say about a wine except that it was a classic example of Oregon Pinot Noir,” she remembers.
Determined to improve her knowledge, she worked her first harvest with Dominio IV Winery in Carlton, Oregon. She had spent the four years after high school traveling all over Central America and Spain, and was thrilled to realize that working in wine meant that she could work a harvest here, and then travel to the southern hemisphere and work a harvest there.
For two years Nickolisen alternated seasons working at Mahi Wines in Marlborough, New Zealand, with harvests at Dominio IV. In 2015 she worked the harvest in in Chillán, in the Itata Valley of central Chile, following which she decided that she was tired of living out of a backpack.
She also came to a startling realization. “I had the practical aspects of winemaking down pat, but I had no theory to back it up. I knew how to add sulfur to wine, but I didn’t know exactly what it did, or when to add it,” she says.
She moved to Walla Walla, got a job at Gramercy Cellars, enrolled in the WWCC program, and began studying theory with Sabrina Lueck and the other faculty.
Lueck comes from Cornell University’s Viticulture and Enology program. In 2010 she was one of the first graduates of their newly-minted program, which at the time was mainly theoretical and did not have a facility for students to make wine.
Upon graduation she was offered a short-term job at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Paterson, filling in for an enologist on maternity leave. Lueck moved to eastern Washington, sight unseen.
She later worked at a tasting room on Red Mountain, before being hired at WWCC. Initially she did a bit of everything, learning the practical aspects of winemaking and supporting the program in the classroom, as well as with production and sales. Now she’s the college’s Enology Instructor and Wine Marketing Manager.
Although the wine industry has traditionally been male-focused, Lueck is pleased to add that “our program has a really nice wave of incredibly hard-working female students.”
“I love Elizabeth’s quiet passion,” Lueck continues. ”She’s all about thoughtfulness and quality. And Ari has so much power and presence. Before she came to our program she already had a rich background in winemaking. Elizabeth is already pushing winemaking style forward in this Valley, and I think Ari is going to do the same thing in Oregon with pinot noir.”
Wine and a woman’s touch, it’s a winning combination.