Northwest Wine Academy

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members of the academy

West Seattle’s affordable, delicious, student-run winery
STORY AND PHOTOS BY BETH MAXEY

 

My favorite Washington wine is Northwest Wine Academy’s (NWWA) Alder Ridge Zinfandel from Horse Heaven Hills. Why? It’s a really good wine at a really good value; $10 for a Washington Zinfandel that is smooth and rich with interesting spice, nice minerality, and restrained fruit. And it is local, really local. NWWA’s entire production is done by its students, in West Seattle.

The NWWA is part of South Seattle Community College; it was founded in 2004 and has been growing quickly ever since. Though they are looking forward to moving into new facilities in the fall of 2013, when I visited NWWA shared a building with South Seattle’s welding school. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place until I spotted grapevines planted along the wall. Inside it looked more like a winery, with barrels lining the wall and the scents of must and yeast filling the air.

I met with winemaker and program director Regina Daigneault. “How is it that your students’ wine is so good?” I asked. “And what are your students doing after they graduate?” Winemaking can be a very difficult industry to break into. Regina shrugged and smiled. She and Peter Bos, who make up the core Wine Production faculty, are both industry veterans. “We have a strong program,” she says, which doesn’t precisely answer my question but sounds hopeful that some of these students are finding industry jobs.

Before students can begin to make wine, they are required to take courses in basic enology, sensory evaluation, and “Wines of the World”, a delicious-sounding wine appreciation class. These foundation classes take several semesters. “The idea,” Regina said, as she showed me the NWWA cellar, “is that students develop their palates and understand aromas before they work with the fruit. They then study algebra and chemistry in preparation for their wine science classes and the microbiotioc analysis they will need to do in production courses.”

 

The production classes that follow take the entire school year. These courses are so popular that there is now a 20-30 person waiting list for the series, which begins every fall with harvesting grapes and ends in the spring with bottling wine. “NWWA alumnae are marketable,” Regina said. “They have practical winemaking skills and they know their way around a winery. Winemakers want to hire them. Our students don’t just learn winemaking theory. They know how to fit hoses and work bottlers.” This sounds like a real answer to my earlier question—the students’ practical abilities have obvious appeal to vintners in need of assistance.

We visited the NWWA’s small retail tasting room, where I asked about the Zinfandel I liked so much. Regina shook her head. “We’re all sold out of that Zin, I think.” She handed me a Cab Franc. “We won several awards for this.” Then she pointed at a whole section of bottles with different labels: Lobo Hill, Patterson Cellars and Lauren Ashton to name a few. “Those are all made by graduates who opened their own wineries.”

They are indeed sold out of my favorite Zin. It’s not just because that wine is so good, but because those Alder Ridge Zinfindel grapes, like all of NWWA’s fruit, were donated by local winemakers and viticulturists, alumnae and friends of NWWA. Oftentimes the donations are row ends or extras from well-known vineyards—small batches of grapes that make for small batches of wine which often go quite quickly. Despite the tendency to sell out, these donations keep NWWA’s costs down, their community ties strong, and their students supplied with interesting varietals to work with.

 

We walked around the classrooms. Equations were up on the board; chemistry equipment in the cupboards. Regina pointed at masking tape identifying the contents of the barrels: Caraménère, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Barbera, Chardonnay, all made from fruit donated by growers in the Columbia Valley, Yakima, and Red Mountain AVAs. Then she laughed, “Sometimes we get a call. A winemaker will say: ‘You guys can have a few crates of Mourvèdre, but you have to come pick it. So all the wine production students get in the car and head down to the vines to pick the row ends or glean what the commercial pickers missed. Or other times the winemaker will tell us that they’re sending us a batch of grapes, then call back when the truck is half-way here, and apologize, explaining they need the fruit after all. We never count on anything until the grapes are at the school.”

After harvest, production students spend the fall making the wine. The wine marketing students then design the labels, write the tasting notes, and sell the wines in their on-campus retail store. They also coordinate with Cru Distribution, a Seattle wine wholesaler, to place their wines in restaurants and wine shops in Seattle and the Puget Sound area.

Yvonne Davis is a graduate of the wine marketing program; she’s now the rep at Cru Distribution who handles the NWWA’s wholesale distribution. “Reggie has an amazing palate, and Peter has a great Old World winemaking style, but the students are all tasting and discussing the wine as it develops, so it really is a collective.” I told her how impressed I was with the Zinfandel and the other NWWA wines I’d tasted since (a Cabernet Franc, a Sémillion, and a Rosé), Yvonne nodded. “The wines are really elegant and sophisticated for the money you are paying.” NWWA’s small batches don’t seem to be a problem. “Small local shop owners and restaurants are my best clients,” Yvonne says, “The places that want to carry this wine are local and community conscious.”

Jim Maloney of Madrona Wine Merchants has carried a number of NWWA Wines. “In general,” he says, “They are very well made and a great value at $10 to $12 dollars a bottle. Some people are a little leery of “School Project” wine, but one you get them to taste it they generally like them. We’ve included several in our Saturday tastings and they are always a hit.” Doug Nufer, at European Vine Selections on Capitol Hill, agrees. “They make great wines for the price. For a while they had the best Zinfandel in Washington, and also the cheapest.”

 

Sidebar: Try the Wines

Beth Maxey writes about food and wine when she is not eating and drinking it. Read more at twentyeightletters.com.

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