Walla Walla boomed to life in the mid-1800s on the dry, fertile soil of southeastern Washington, supplying gold prospectors on their way to Idaho and Montana with shovels, bacon, and whiskey. Its first storefronts were made of wood and hastily built, but they quickly gave way to brick and mortar, along with roads, schools, a prison, and the state’s first bank. The early settlers grew wheat in the region’s rich soil, as well as potatoes, corn, and barley. A few new industries sprang up alongside farming over the next century, including food processing and industrial manufacturing, but by the dawn of the 1990s, the economy had fallen into a doze.
While a tech wave pushed unemployment down to 4 percent in the nation at large, Walla Walla’s jobless rate stayed above 7 percent for the entire decade. The city appeared to be following a path all too familiar in rural America, its population and economy stagnating as malls on the outskirts supplanted downtown businesses and crowded out the local character. If there was hope for renewal, it sprang from a vine: Walla Walla still had its soil, and the soil, a few enterprising locals had discovered in the late 1970s, could grow something a lot more lucrative than grain.
Wine made from grapes harvested from the corners of local wheat fields was impressing critics and signaling the potential to power the town’s economy and create thousands of good-paying jobs. But to grow from a boutique enterprise to a full-scale industry, the region’s vintners needed workers – and those workers needed specific skills.
Walla Walla Community College saw the opportunity to train those workers in a program tailored to the local wine industry’s needs. The college’s graduates populated the fields, wine laboratories, cellars, and tasting rooms that unfurled like tendrils across the county. As the industry grew, so did the city’s tourism business, its restaurants, and its hotels. The number of wine-related jobs in the region nearly doubled over the past four years.
America’s economy today feels as sleepy as Walla Walla’s two decades ago. Middle-class workers were slammed by the financial crisis, their jobs disappearing, wages stagnating, and future uncertain. To put them back to work, the nation would do well to consider Walla Walla, which seems to have cracked the code on how to get mid-skill workers back into the labor force while revitalizing an economy.
If the country needs a model, this could be it.
An Idea Takes Root
Early settlers planted the first wine grapes in Walla Walla in the mid-1800s, but the industry never took off. Then, in the 1970s, a local machinist and a wheat farmer began making wine at home, started their own labels, and earned national acclaim for the wines produced by their now well-known Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon. Other wineries followed. In 1990, Los Angeles Times writer Dan Berger called southeastern Washington “one of the most exciting wine regions in the world.”
But the area had barely 20 wineries in the late 1990s. The limiting factor wasn’t the availability of land or the nation’s appetite for the region’s wine; it was that making wine is difficult and requires workers with detailed training.
Winemaking involves constant decision-making, starting with determining when to harvest the grapes. The longer they ripen on the vine, the sweeter the grapes become. Once harvested, grapes are sorted to remove the damaged, underripe, or raisin-like fruit. Workers or machines remove the stems and press the juice from the grape. Yeast is added to ferment the juice, converting the sugars to alcohol. Both the temperature and the vessel in which the wine is then aged – oak and stainless steel are popular choices – influence the taste and style of the final product. Once the wine has matured to the winemakers’ specifications, it is clarified and bottled. The process is not intuitive; workers need to be taught.
Steven VanAusdle had a hunch that Walla Walla Community College was the place to do the teaching.
In 1999, VanAusdle, the college’s president, approached Myles Anderson, a longtime instructor at the college and owner of Walla Walla Vintners, with the idea for training students to work in the local vineyards. Anderson, who had co-founded his boutique winery in 1995, surveyed the handful of winemakers in the region. Only one of them had formal training in the craft, but all said that having trained workers would be immensely helpful.
The enology and viticulture training center the two men originally envisioned was modest: a small, metal pole building containing two classrooms, a wine production area with a press, crushing equipment, and a place to park a tractor. This was the vision they pitched to local business leaders in a series of biweekly lunches that VanAusdle hosted in the college’s boardroom, in hopes of soliciting donations. The pitch worked. As money rolled in, the plans grew, expanding to a multimillion-dollar center for wine training.