By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
From Mattawa to Maine, graduates of the Walla Walla Community College enology and viticulture program have been proving themselves to be golden. While most of the grads are snapped up by the Washington winemaking industry as soon as the ink is dry on their diplomas, WWCC alumni are making wine as far away as Michigan, Virginia, Maine, Texas, and Maryland.
Many are receiving the highest accolades from judges in some of the most prestigious American wine competitions: the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the Cascadia Wine Competition, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Seattle Wine Awards, the Seattle Magazine Wine Awards, the Great Northwest Invitational.
Here’s a look at some of the WWCC graduates who went on to become winery owners, winemakers, or assistant winemakers, winning gold, double gold, or best in class designations for their wines at these highly-regarded competitions.
Wine competitions have their own lingo, one that’s different from, say, the terminology of a county fair. In the wine world a gold medal is the result of a negotiation among the judging panel. For example, four judges may think the wine deserves a gold, one wants to award it a silver. Bowing to the will of the majority, the silver proponent is persuaded to give the wine a gold.
A double gold is awarded when every judge on the panel thinks it deserves a gold on the first round of tasting. And a wine is judged best in class when all of the gold medalists in a given class, like red Bordeaux blends, for example, are tasted against each other and one favorite to rule them all is chosen.
Bear in mind that not all wineries enter their wines in competitions. Wineries must pay for each bottle they enter, and not all winemakers are interested in submitting their wines to the scrutiny of a panel of judges whose tastes are arguably subjective. Some of our most famous local wineries are so exclusive that they sell wine by subscription only; they don’t seek additional fame, and they don’t have extra wine to sell.
Although about 70 WWCC grads are currently leading the winemaking programs at their respective wineries, not all of their wines have been submitted to the seven competitions named above. But many of them have, and together they have racked up just over 100 of the coveted top prizes.
When it comes to accumulated top medals, two of the winningest winemakers are 2005 graduate Victor Palencia and 2007 graduate Shane Collins. Each has won eleven of these top awards. What are their secrets to winning such high praise for their wines?
For Palencia, who grew up in the vineyards where his father worked, it’s all about knowing your land and its fruit.
“Focus on what the site and soil can deliver consistently, and use that as you develop your winemaking style,” he advises. “This allows you to focus on the nuances of the art, rather than on fixing the results of a challenging vineyard.”
“I seek out unique vineyard sites that express the qualities I’m looking for, then do my best to capture them in the bottle. I’m looking for all my wines to have a purity of fruit, regardless of the variety,” he adds.
After years of winning awards for Jones of Washington Winery his Palencia Wine Company will open its new headquarters in Kennewick later this year.
Collins, who recently became winemaker at Rocky Pond Winery after 10 years making wine at Lake Chelan’s Tsillan Cellars, emphasizes that there isn’t a magic potion for garnering accolades, because each vintage presents new challenges.
“What there is” he says, “is passion and drive. That is something that is very strong in both Victor Palencia and me. Also, working in the same location for 10 years allowed me to learn an incredible amount about a specific spot in the ground and how that translated into the wines that were made from it.”
The wines he crafts are made in the cool climate surrounding Lake Chelan, which many growers had considered to be too cold for successful viticulture.
“I think my wines have done so well because I have been able to come back to the valley I grew up in,” he continues. “There is a connection to this valley and its beauty that sparks a fire inside of me, allowing me to put everything I have into the wines I make.”
Both of these young winemakers live and breathe the elusive concept of terroir, the desire to reveal a sense of place in the wines they make. Training, and the ability to capture terroir, have helped them make wines that are as good as gold.
And the winner is……
Class of 2003
Chris Peterson – Avennia
Class of 2004
Matt Huse – Five Star Cellars
Marcus Miller – Airfield Estates
Bill VonMetzger – Walla Walla Vintners
Andrew Wilson – Goose Ridge Vineyards
Class of 2005
Victor Palencia – Jones of Washington, Palencia Wine Company
Ryan Raber – Tertulia Cellars
Noah Reed – William Church Winery
Class of 2006
Freddy Arredondo – Cave B Estate
Class of 2007
Shane Collins – Tsillan Cellars
Brian Rudin – Canvasback Wine
Derrek Vipond – Long Shadows Vintners
Joel Waite – CAVU Cellars
Tanya Woodley – SuLei Cellars
Class of 2008
Ryan Crane – Kerloo Cellars
Aaron Peet – Cellardoor Winery
Class of 2009
Anthony Lombardo – Kana Winery
Class of 2011
Chris Castillo – Castillo de Feliciana
Class of 2012
Michael Prout – Tamarack Cellars
Rick Sewell – Scarlet Oak Barrels
Sean Smith – Bergevin Lane Vineyards
Class of 2013
Jason Fox – Lagana Cellars
Cody Janett – Forgeron Cellars
Class of 2014
John Little – Rio Vista Wines
Joshua West – Elephant Seven Wines
Class of 2015
Ben Stuart – Burnt Bridge Cellars
Class of 2016
Brad Binko – Eternal Wines
Neil Johnston – Dumas Station Wines
Christopher Wright – Thurston Wolfe Winery