The educational component of the effort to improve the quality of Loudoun wines—and boost the industry in general—is gaining traction at Northern Virginia Community College.
As the first introductory course on viticulture at the Sterling campus wraps up, the Horticulture Department is gearing up for an expanded offering of classes next month.
Loudoun’s wine industry has grown extensively over the past two decades, and now boasts 42 farm wineries. In the past few years, there has been a growing push to boost the quality of Loudoun wine—and education is seen as an essential route to that goal by many.
The Charlottesville area has long been known as one of the top wine-producing and wine education regions in Virginia, and the question has arisen: Why try to repeat that in Loudoun? Why not go to known wine educational centers for training?
“Is it worth it here? Absolutely,” said Hillsborough Winery’s co-owner and winemaker Kerem Baki, who teaches the NOVA course, in a recent interview. “Out here we require an educated staff. I don’t have the time to educate people [on site]. We need people with at least the fundamentals,” he said, noting on-the-job training goes only so far. Baki said there should be schools in each of the state’s wine regions.
“Viticulture is about chemistry, climate and soils. It’s very specific,” he said, adding, “Education is the only way to grow the industry productively.”
Where It All Began
Three years ago, Loudoun County and the Town of Purcellville, with the help of a state grant, commissioned a Virginia Tech feasibility study on establishing an enology (the study of winemaking) center and classes to provide the educational support for the growing industry. Another key objective was to provide jobs for those interested in translating their classroom learning into hands-on experience in the vineyard.
The study concluded such a venture would have regional benefits. But the project hit a few snags thereafter. The Purcellville council that came into power in 2014 had less interest in pursuing the project and enrollment for the statewide curriculum wine education program, to be taught by NVCC’s Horticulture Department, was anemic for the two more technical courses.
The community college decided to defer those two advance classes, but proceeded with the introductory course on viticulture last fall, with an enrollment of 20 students.
Dave Scheid, who heads up the Horticulture Department, said the course ends this week. Three more classes will be offered in the spring—the physiology of grape vine growing; introduction to winemaking; and a field course covering a list of specific topics, the first being pruning.
“So far we are pleased with the introduction to the curriculum and will see what the spring enrollments bring to the classes,” Scheid said. He said faculty will meet early next year to discuss credentialing and interim certificates toward a future degree.
During a class last week, Baki led students through topics such as pest and disease management, spraying, irrigation, canopy structure, how to determine when a grape is ripe for harvesting, berry structure and ripening—delving into a surprising level of detail in an introductory course.
Students enrolled in the initial viticulture course have varied levels of experience. Some are interested in working at a vineyard. Some are focused on the hospitality side of DC’s Wine Country. Students are about equally divided between men and women. Baki said he assumed most had “an interest in joining the industry in some capacity or the other.”
Student Andy Hair lives in Hamilton. He is a consulting engineer who launched his winemaking operation in 2005.
“I love wine, it’s my hobby—and maybe retirement occupation,” he said.
Hair said he appreciated Baki’s expertise and interactive teaching style, particularly on knowledge that’s very specific to Loudoun.
Hair buys grapes from Loudoun vineyards and has already enrolled in the winemaking course.
Ed Harrington is another grape grower in the class. A resident of Alexandria, he tends four trellises of grapes at Mt. Vernon. Harrington would like to develop a vineyard from “zero up” and has friends who would like to join him.
The question is how that interest will focus, and students perked up when Baki directed them to the Virginia Vineyards Association website where they can check available jobs in Virginia and post ads.
Program leaders are hoping next year’s classes, which run from January to May, pick up more interest.
Winemakers See Value
Loudoun County Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Boles is convinced that the enology center and wine education is right for Loudoun and her hope is that the wineries participate as fully as possible.
“They should be sending [people] to the classes,” she said.
Baki agrees. He is a firm proponent of educating people, then hiring them for the practical application of the theory they have learned in class.
Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars in Lucketts, supports the Virginia Tech and NVCC emphasis on classroom learning, but says on-the-job education is just as important.
“We have to hire them as interns or afterwards, in a position where they get the practical application of what they have learned.”
Ben Renshaw, owner of 8 Chains North Winery, insists any educational program should be specific to Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region—“We’re a different animal from other regions.”
He sees education as a way to boost wine quality in Loudoun and he noted there are several graduates of Virginia Tech’s viticulture program already working in Loudoun.
“If someone’s growing better grapes, it’s better for my business,” Renshaw said.
Lacey Huber, vice president of Stone Tower Winery just south of Leesburg, is excited about the viticulture education.
“We support it—across the board—sending employees or hiring as interns or in more permanent positions,” she said.
The industry in Loudoun is growing so quickly that finding training available is promising, Huber said: “It’s exciting to have a locally specific program.”