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Umpqua College embraces the wine business

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Archives - October 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Umpqua Community College president Blaine Nisson at the site of a future $7 million teaching winery.

Umpqua Community College president Blaine Nisson and his staff have launched 12 new instructional programs over the past five years, ranging from truck driving and construction technology to dental hygiene and medical billing. But the initiative that has gotten the most attention — and the biggest boost from Nisson’s substantial reserves of energy — has been the Southern Oregon Wine Institute.

“This is going to help change our economy,” Nisson says as he shows off the lush new crop of Nebbiolo grapes decorating the campus. A short distance away the ground has been cleared for a $7 million teaching winery with a certified tasting lab and storage space for the 1,000 or so cases of wine the college intends to sell each year.

Nisson has hired former Stone Bluff Cellars viticulturist Chris Lake as director of the program, along with Rebecca Ford Kapoor, a winemaker from New Zealand with expertise in marketing. Their job is to build a seven-county program teaching students the art and science of site selection, grape varieties, vineyard design, irrigation and wine marketing. The college also plans to raise money by hosting weddings, concerts and other events at the campus winery while selling its best creations.

Oregon’s billion-dollar wine industry first took root in the Umpqua Valley in 1961. Since then the Pinots of the Willamette Valley have emerged dominant, lifting fortunes in towns such as Dundee, Carlton and McMinnville. But the Umpqua Valley, with its varied microclimates and complex topography (not to mention cheap land), has vast potential. A recent report commissioned by the college identified 140,000 acres of vine land in Southern Oregon, 40,000 of which were rated very good. The report predicts 5,000 jobs will be created over the next eight years in the Southern Oregon wine industry.

Umpqua’s wine institute is modeled on Walla Walla College’s 9-year-old Enology and Viticulture Program, where the number of nearby wineries has grown from 25 in 1999 to 125 in 2007 and wine now accounts for 15% of local jobs. Another successful program has long existed at Napa Valley Community College in California.

Umpqua is no Napa, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Starting a winery is a risky, costly endeavor, but it is a lot more affordable in a place like Douglas County. That helps explain why Duck Pond Cellars of Dundee recently purchased 200 acres and planted grapes, Melrose Vineyards of Roseburg expanded locally by 180 acres and an unidentified California wine family purchased 1,500 acres in Douglas County.

Fermenting that speculative interest into a vintage economic success story will not be easy. “It will take years and a lot of hard work,” says Nisson, “but everything that’s worthwhile takes time and a lot of hard work.” 


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