Pour a glass of Riesling from the tall, sleek green bottle labeled Blended Learning, and out comes not only a unique blend of white wine grapes from the Yakima Valley, but the story of six WSU students finding opportunity and education in the heart of Washington wine country.
Robb Zimmel, a senior in the WSU Viticulture and Enology program, was working as a LifeFlight paramedic in Portland when he discovered an interest in fermentation science and decided to move to Tri-Cities with his wife a few years ago. Now in his final year at WSU, when he talks about his favorite part of winemaking, he waxes poetic.
“It’s that pinnacle moment,” he says. “After the grapes have been crushed, the soak is done, the yeast is ready, and you’re waiting to see if the fermentation will take off like a freight train or be sluggish…it’s that next day when you come into the winery. There is an intoxicating wine smell, and you’re just hoping and praying that the ferment is working, and you’re waiting for the sugars to drop…from that point forward the birth of your wine begins and you watch it all the way through to its maturity, and guide it.”
Zimmel and five fellow students began planning for what would be the first WSU student-made wine back in spring 2012. With support and mentorship from their professors in the classroom and from Charlie Hoppes at Fidelitas winery in Richland, Washington, they chose their grape varieties, harvested, crushed, barreled, and, in the summer of 2013, bottled their finished product. They worked with Noir Designs to develop a marketable label design, released 100 cases of the Riesling in Fall 2013 through Wine By Cougars, and made it available at the new Brelsford WSU Visitor Center in Pullman.
Student winemakers Dane Day and Joe Perez began the Riesling project during their first semester in the program, along with Zimmel, Colin Hickey, Garrett Grover, and Lora Morgan. Going into their final semesters of the program last summer, Day and Perez began pouring at wine shows and tastings, shaking hands with alumni and buyers, and developing an online presence to promote the wine. Meanwhile, they had another premium wine project underway. A cabernet is currently in the works at Barnard Griffin winery in Richland, Perez said.
“The ability to ask questions and soak up knowledge on a regular basis is fantastic and the Griffins are such a nice family—they make very good wine,” said Perez, who decided to pursue wine after serving in the Marine Corps. “Luckily for us, what we are learning in the wineries is also what we are learning in the classes. The two work in concert with each other.”
Launching a Legacy
While some of the student winemakers have graduated since the wine’s launch, Zimmel has already begun to develop his own label in partnership with Barnard Griffin while still in school. Perez and Day are heading into their final semesters with what Perez describes as an “enormity” of options and connections within the wine industry. But their wine certainly won’t be the last of the student-made wines coming from the WSU Viticulture and Enology program.
Les Walker graduated from WSU in 1984 with a degree in geology and returned to WSU Tri-Cities two years ago looking to make a career change. Along with Jeff Thompson, a Navy veteran who, while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail decided he wanted to pursue agriculture, and fellow student Dave Balsz, they began harvesting Chenin Blanc grapes and Barbera grapes this last fall. They also learned about bottling with the red wine blend the first group of student winemakers left at the barreling stage at Horse Heaven Hills. In spring 2014, the Chenin Blanc will be ready to bottle. Other blends of 2012 reds that were prepared last fall will soon be ready for bottling as well.
This spring, when the bustling atmosphere in the wineries has settled down, the students will discuss the design for their label and take the next steps in marketing their product. In the future, students will create their wines at the new Wine Science Center, said Perez. With a vision of creating a series of wines from the WSU Viticulture and Enology program, the new group is already helping establish a new tradition of blended learning — bringing together students, alumni, winemakers, growers, and wine enthusiasts to uncork possibilities.
– by Rachel Webber