Our very early 2016 harvest is in the books (or rather, in the fermenters and barrels). And thank goodness for the early growing season and harvest, because mid-October saw the entire Willamette Valley, Oregon coast and Portland area hit with an enormous rain and wind storm that thankfully didn’t cause as much damage as it did dread and nervous anticipation. Had this been a normal year of grapes not ripening until late-October…well, we’re glad we didn’t have to go there. The reports all through the AVA are that 2016 will be a beautiful year for expressive wines made from perfectly ripened fruit of great depth and character.
Of all the vineyards in the YC AVA that harvested their grapes, there was one modest 1.5-acre patch that deserves special praise. That is the working vineyard of Yamhill Carlton High School, which just saw its third harvest in what is one of the most unique viticulture education programs anywhere in the country, if not the world.
“We’re the only school in the nation to have a working vineyard on school grounds,” explained Nichole Eskelsen, the Agricultural Sciences teacher who leads the program at 330-student YCHS.
“The future of our economy around here is definitely in the wine industry,” added principal Greg Neuman. “We’re providing kids with important skills.”
The YCHS viticulture program was the brainchild of Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, who several years ago saw the value of imparting vineyard education to local students. After all, the Yamhill-Carlton area has been heavily invested in agriculture for generations, with some families who have farmed their land for over a century. Before grapes began to arrive in this area forty years ago there were generations of prune growers, dairy farms, cherry orchards and Christmas tree farms. With more and more local agricultural land devoted to growing grapes, young people should have a chance to learn about viticulture, increase their awareness of the wine industry as an agricultural business, and possibly prepare themselves for future work in the industry.
Armed with a concept and their considerable passion, Ken and vineyard manager Mark Gould rallied the support of fellow YC AVA growers and winemakers, who reached into their pockets and offered their expertise in creating a wine-growing curriculum. To get the vineyard up and growing, a federal grant from the AVA was coupled with an Erath Foundation grant and private investment from many industry members. Results Partners chipped in with foundational work on the site.
It all came together in 2012, when the vacant field just beyond the high school’s ball fields witnessed a remarkable sight. A diverse cluster of people, from superintendent Charan Cline to Ken Wright, Dick Erath, Mark Gould and a cadre of students got their hands dirty while planting 1,800 vines of four different clonal varieties of pinot noir. “They were all in boots, on their knees digging in the ground,” recalled Nichole Eskelsen, who has been teaching the program ever since. “You felt truly invested. The kids have a lot of pride and passion in that work.”
For Superintendent Cline and Principal Neumann, the viticulture program is the cornerstone for a Yamhill Carlton Career Academy that is taking off from where the vineyard started with a series of classes and paths that students will be able to pursue, from horticulture and viticulture to metal fabrication. “We will be providing skills that a kid can leave with and go right into a career field,” said Neuman, adding that students are already earning college credits for some of their coursework.
“It’s very much a part of our overall philosophy with students, to train them in jobs that will keep them in the community,” said Charan Cline, who as Superintendent of the district is an avid supporter of the viticulture program. His daughter Kat Cline was one of the first students to work in the vineyard, and spent two summers on an internship program with Mark Gould before graduating.
“It’s an absolutely unique program,” he added. “Certainly nobody of our size is doing it.“
And what happens to the grapes that the students nurture all year, both through classes and through an industry-funded summer internship program that keeps workers in the fields even while school is out? The ripe fruit is picked and packed off to Ken Wright Cellars to be transformed into a special cuvee that will be bottled and sold as a fundraiser for the school, with label designs provided by the students.
It is that kind of cooperation and interaction between AVA members and the local community that makes this program in particular so special to us. “We can’t put a dollar value on what industry resources have been put on the table,” said Nichole. “I have the resource of Mark Gould: Kids adore it when he comes out. He gives them not only vineyard practices but life skills. You come to work. You bring a work ethic.”
As for right now, the grapes have been harvested and the leaves are now dropping off the vines of the Yamhill Carlton High School vineyard. The wine made from those grapes is in barrels. The course of learning is now moving indoors with sections on soil science, the economics of vineyard production, and the anatomy of grape vines. Students will return to the vineyard in February to prune vines and continue working outdoors right through to the spring and budding season for the next vintage of YCHS wine. Some will move from graduation straight into wine-industry jobs in both the fields and the wineries.
It’s a fine thing to offer our local kids; the rest of us can only wish we had the chance to learn viticulture in high school.