County News

Seven years after Yavapai College Verde Campus offered its first viticulture class, the Southwest Wine Center has opened the doors of its tasting room.

The space is small and minimalist, high-ceilinged and airy. Its walls are ribbed with bands of oak taken from discarded wine barrels Director of Enology Michael Pierce dismantled himself with the help of students and staff.

“In 2014, the Southwest Wine Center completed construction and we produced the first student-made wine,” Pierce said. “In November of 2015, the wine was ready for release and the tasting room opened to the public.”

According to Pierce, the concept of the Southwest Wine Center “always included having a tasting room to showcase the wine and to offset costs.” The sale of the wine helps further fund the program.

Tucked in one quarter of the modernist industrial center, the tasting room mirrors the goal of the Viticulture and Enology Associate of Applied Science degree program, melding the science and art of wine making with the business of selling wine.

“The objective is to make students employable,” Pierce said, adding that nearly all of the 90-plus students enrolled in either the two-year associate’s degree or the one-year enology or viticulture certificate programs are already working in the industry.

Speaking of successes, the center has seen 15 students walk through its doors with Associate in Applied Sciences degrees. All four student-made vintages submitted to the 2014 Arizona Republic Wine Competition came away with awards — two silvers and two bronzes.

Beginning in 2012, planting has occurred every year in May. By the 2017 planting, the campus vineyards will be “planted out,” Pierce said, meaning that they will have reached capacity at 13 acres of cultivated land.

Of future plans, Pierce said, “We’ll continue to increase production as the vineyard plantings come to maturity. We’ve begun to include business and marketing components to the curriculum. Additionally, we plan to serve as a data repository for the information we have gathered during the building and running of the wine center.”

As with any enterprise up to the dictates of nature, there are risks particular to the area: At the foot of Mingus Mountain, late spring frosts and monsoons hold the potential to decimate a crop. The center has been largely free of the effects of both.

According to Pierce, Yavapai College’s vineyards are suitably placed, the production facility one of the finest in the region.

“Right now, we’re becoming an anchor program for this campus,” Pierce said, adding that students are coming from as far away as Phoenix for the opportunity to study wine. “We’re starting to be a destination program.”

The potential is there, as Pierce revealed, to be an integrated program. Along with the college’s burgeoning culinary and hospitality programs, the Southwest Wine Center and its tasting room could evolve into a place where complementary disciplines are featured to their fullest extent.

Pierce invited anyone with an interest to visit the tasting room and take a look at the facility, advising large groups to call ahead to book a tour.

The tasting room is located at 601 Black Hills Drive, Clarkdale, open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 634-6566 or visit its website.

A Student Profile
Jason Nihart came from Washington in July of last year, all in the pursuit of making a career out of wine. Currently enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology Associate of Applied Science degree program, he is working double time — all seven classes; 18 credit hours — to finish his degree and begin working in the industry.
“I’ll be done in one year instead of two,” Nihart said. He came out from behind the tasting room bar, where he recommends and serves vintages to patrons. He praised the program for its internship-styled approach, which has placed him in several area vineyards.
The variety he has found — and tasted — is astonishing.
“You can get the same fruit sent to eight different wine makers and come back with eight completely different tasting wines.”

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