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California College Cuts Wine Course

Cabrillo eliminates program in Santa Cruz; blames budget woes

by Jane Firstenfeld
cabrillo college vineyard wine
Cabrillo College students of Sue Slater (front) get hands-on vineyard experience during harvest.
Aptos, Calif.—As the North American wine industry continues to extend its roots in the most unlikely corners of the continent, supporting budding appellations with local educational programs, Cabrillo College eliminated a successful wine program after more than a decade.

The community college in Aptos, just south of Santa Cruz on the Central Coast, announced last month that its 18-credit series of classes focused on wine service, wine appreciation, winemaking and grapegrowing will not be included in the 2011-12 curriculum.

Cabrillo president Brian King told Wines & Vines that the program was one of many casualties of California’s budget cuts. “We’ve cut classes in math, English and course skills,” he said. “We’ve suspended the wine classes as well as hundreds of others.”

King said the classes did not constitute a wine program, per se, but “a supplement to the culinary arts program” leading to an associate degree.

Under the guidance of tenured instructor Sue Slater, who’ll continue to teach in Cabrillo’s culinary department, the program had grown from a single “Introduction to Wine” class in 2000 to encompass enology and viticulture courses. During that time, Slater and other instructors helped numerous students to launch successful wine careers.

Slater noted that, despite Santa Cruz’ allure as an ocean-side tourist destination, and the county’s 58-and-counting wineries, training opportunities for would-be wine professionals are virtually nonexistent. “I started in the first place because there is a three-hour driving radius to any kind of wine education,” she said. Although the University of California maintains a huge and popular campus in Santa Cruz, it has neither enology nor viticulture programs, in contrast to its well-endowed sister institution at Davis.

The Cabrillo cuts surprised both Slater and the local wine community. “There’s understandable outrage in the wine community,” Slater said. “It’s horrible. I feel like I’ve lost an arm.” Santa Cruz wineries have given generously over the years, donating wines for classes and for the culinary department’s student-run restaurant, which provides wine service training during evening dining.

Alumni speak up
Wine classes at Cabrillo changed the course of Katie Vandermause’s career. While working for the San Francisco 49ers, she devoutly drove from Niner headquarters in Santa Clara across the Santa Cruz Mountains’ infamous Highway 17 every Thursday night for a year to take Slater’s courses. In 2007, she took a public relations position at 35,000-case Peju Province in Rutherford, Calif., then moved last year to Constellation in San Francisco, where she’s PR manager for box, lifestyle and Washington wines.

Her experience at Cabrillo, she said, “Inspired me to shift gears.” Slater, she noted, “Really tried to get people integrated into the local wine culture. The classes reached many people in many ways. There’s so much potential there; students have the potential to contribute locally from business, winemaking and culinary standpoints.”

While working at Peju, Vandermause continued her education at Napa Valley Community College, which not surprisingly supports a fully functioning wine program. She’d like to see Cabrillo achieve something similar. “Santa Cruz has the same culture,” she said.

Mikael Wargin, a former landscaper and self-described “frequent taster,” began his wine education at Cabrillo in 2004 and went on, he said, “to take every class I could possibly take.” Wargin moved on to crush intern and assistant winemaker positions and is now winemaker for St. Helena’s M J A Vineyards LLC, which has recently expanded into industrial space formerly owned by Bonny Doon in west Santa Cruz. There, Wargin concentrates on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He also started his own label, Wargin Wines, featuring mostly Italian varietals, and teaches wine classes at M J A.

He termed the Cabrillo closure “a huge downer for everyone who was going to take the classes; I know three or four. It was getting people into the wine experience. I employed interns from the program at my winery.”

Wargin was mystified by the closure. The program, he said, “was fighting the deficit, benefiting restaurateurs, wine shops and vineyards. How much could it have cost them?”

Counting costs, seeking funds
“The program has been a big benefit for those who’ve attended,” said Shannon Flynn, operations manager of Aptos-based Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA). Members, she said, offered discounts to Cabrillo students who attended educational events and seminars, and helped to place them as employees. Although SCMWA has not planned any fundraising events for the Cabrillo program, “We’ll try to help as much as possible,” Flynn said.

The Santa Cruz Farm Bureau is taking a proactive stance to restore the Cabr illo wine program. Executive director Jess Brown told Wines & Vines, “We’ve offered the college help in bringing the classes back. We’ve asked them to let us know what it would take financially. We understand the difficult situation this and all colleges are in.”

According to King, the classes have not been self-supporting. “The fees are very low. We’ve had preliminary conversations with the farm bureau. Those dialogues are underway, and we are open to support.”

Slater and her colleagues are continuing work begun two years ago to establish a wine certification program followed by an associate degree. She reported that local winegrowers have offered to donate land “either naked or with vines” to support the program. “We’re trying to grow this economy, but it’s not going to happen if you don’t give people skills. Anyone who has taken our classes gets hired right now, without exception.”

Although Jess Brown is still waiting to learn how much it would cost and how long it would take to re-establish the program, the farm bureau already has a foundation that can accept tax-deductible donations from businesses or individuals. For details, email or phone (831) 722-6622.

If someone contributed, say, $100,000, could the program be back on the curriculum this fall? “It’s not impossible,” King said. “We’re very nimble.”

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