COTTONWOOD, Ariz. — Joey Estrada grew up cleaning up family friends’ vineyards in California, so he said it is only natural that he will make his career in the wine industry.
“I think it’s always been in me to be around plants and producing from plants. And what better to produce than wine, the most expensive juice in the world,” Estrada said.
That interest, along with the Verde Valley’s growing number of wineries, drew him from Phoenix to Cottonwood, where he is a student in Yavapai College’s viticulture and enology program.
Launched in 2009 in collaboration with the Verde Valley Wine Consortium and the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce, the program offers certificates in viticulture, focusing on the science, production and study of grapes, and in enology, the study of wine and winemaking.
Estrada and other students work in a vineyard on an acre of borrowed land adjacent to the Cottonwood campus. Yavapai College is setting up a 17-acre vineyard farther away and is converting a building that once housed racquetball courts into a winery.
Estrada, who is seeking both certificates as part of an associate degree in applied science, said he appreciates the program’s focus on producing quality wine in northern Arizona. That includes learning about the region’s climate and soil content as well as figuring out which grapes grow best best in the Verde Valley.
“You can learn to make wine, and make wine anywhere, but really, growing grapes is really focused on where you’re at,” he said.
David Harris, Yavapai College’s director of enology, said the program is a response to the expanding and evolving wine industry in the state but especially around the Verde Valley, where there are 29 wineries.
“There is definitely a need for the people who have studied, learned and trained in the technical side of both growing and winemaking,” he said. “Winemaking is an art, but like any art it is requires a technique, and it requires a lot of knowledge of the microbiology and the chemistry of wine.”
Harris said Yavapai College addresses both the theoretical and practical elements of growing grapes and producing wine, preparing students to be successful working in Arizona and throughout the United States.
Director of Viticulture Nikki Check said a 2006 state law allowing individuals to sell wine directly through tasting rooms caused a boom in wineries.
“Since then we grew from 10 wineries up to 84 wineries,” she said. “That expansive growth immediately created a little bit of a vacuum as far as skilled labor and education goes.”
The program aims to give students an understanding of the grape-to-glass process by pairing in-class lessons with learning how to grow grapes and make wine.
“For every academic class, they have to spend 60 hours, each semester, in the field or in the winery, applying their knowledge,” Check said.
Graduates may wind up at Oak Creek Vineyards and Winery in Cornville, where owner Deb Wahl said it’s important to have a workforce educated and trained in Arizona. She said she encounters new challenges every day and that the only way to deal with those is working and experiencing them firsthand.
“I will need good employees who are well-educated in viticulture – that means maintaining a vineyard and being a good winemaker – and I truly believe we have something going on there,” she said. “The hands-on, the practical demand, is very, very valuable.”
Lana Tolleson, president and CEO of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce, said the wine industry is a boon to the area economy, as is Yavapai College’s winemaking program.
“During a time when the rest of the economy was slowing, and even in decline, the wine industry doubled and even tripled every year,” Tolleson said. “Having an educational opportunity be able to flourish during that amount of time has been good for our economy.”
Tolleson said the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce donates money to the Yavapai College program each year through proceeds from a painted wine barrel auction as part of the Taste of the Verde Valley Annual Harvest Celebration.
Estrada has two more semesters until he completes his degree. Then he hopes to work in the Verde Valley.
“I look forward to watching this region evolve. I mean it’s booming,” Estrada said. “We’ve got the skill set to come out of it and really apply that art, and create an industry with competition to drive the wine quality up. We’re producing world-class wines out of Arizona.”