If you've ever wondered what it takes to become a winemaker, you might not have to look very far for answers. Located less than two hours north of the Valley, Yavapai College offers Viticulture and Enology programs that give students the ability to study the ins and outs of growing grapes and making wine.
The school offers separate certificates for viticulture (the science, production, and study of grapes) and enology (the study of wines), with the latter offered for the first time this year. An Associates of Applied Science (AAS) degree combines both disciplines and takes at least two years to complete.
The programs include hands-on studies focused on teaching students a variety of skills necessary to pursue careers in wine. Along with courses offered in classrooms, students spend hours tending to acres of school-owned vineyards and making wine at the Southwest Wine Center. Upon completion, students should be prepared to seek out a number of wine-related careers, from winemaker to vineyard manager and nearly everything in between.
The school has the most industry-scaled vineyard of any community college, according to its administrators, giving students directly transferable experience in viticulture. This fall, the Southwest Wine Center is opening the doors of its tasting room, where student-made wines will be served by the students themselves.
We spoke with Nikki Bagley and Michael Pierce, Yavapai College's respective directors of viticulture and enology, to learn more about their programs as well as the growing wine industry here in Arizona.
Bagley, an Arizona native, first received her AA in agriculture at Yavapai College and later transferred to Prescott College to specialize in soil studies. However, after moving to Jerome, Bagley found herself drawn into the local wine community and ended up working as a vineyard manager for six seasons. Having kept ties to Yavapai College, she was asked to return to her alma mater in 2009 to teach one of the first classes in viticulture, eventually becoming the program director.
Pierce, on the other hand, has been the college's director of enology since 2014. Also an Arizona native, Pierce first discovered a passion for wine after experimenting with making it at home with his dad. After two years of online classes through UC Davis, Pierce transferred to Washington State to further his studies in winemaking and viticulture. Pierce has worked outside of Arizona in places including Oregon, New Zealand, and Tasmania, eventually returning to Arizona to work for Arizona Stronghold. Today, along with his work at Yavapai College, Pierce serves as the winemaker for his family's two Arizona wine labels, Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars.
Both directors say students are drawn to the college's wine-related programs for a variety of reasons; some students come to pursue second or third careers.
"Students come with preset passions sometimes, or they might come with love of soil and earth," Bagley says. "Some people have worked with winemaking or wine service, and they want to know more. And there are students who want to know the whole thing. We have to accommodate all potential outcomes."
"We have a little bit of everything," Pierce adds. "On average, our students are older than most people would expect them to be. The college average is thirty to thirty-one, and we might be a little more mature than that."
Much of the viticulture and enology work at Yavapai College is geared toward research on varietals and practices relevant to the growing wine industry in Arizona and the Southwest. Though detractors remain, it's no secret that the Arizona wine industry has been growing at an incredible rate over the past 20 years. And contrary to what some might think, both Pierce and Bagley say the region's desert landscape can be good for making wine.
"We have something special going on here because of our climate but also because of our soils," Bagley says. "It's different than in other places, especially California and the more bulk wine production areas. Arizona soils are very similar to a lot of European soils."
"We have mineral rich clays and higher calcium soils, some chalkier soils, some sandy soils, and all those impart flavors and terroir that you end up seeing in Old World wines," she says.
Pierce says that the Arizona wine industry is similar to the one in Washington thirty years ago. "In thirty years — it really does take that much time to establish things and understand how varietals work — I can see Arizona being an established state."
Bagley agrees. "In 30 years down the road, what's going to be our Pinot Noir that Oregon found? Or the Cabernet Sauvignon that Napa found? What's our star going to be?"
Both Pierce and Bagley spend a great deal of time working to better understand which varietals work with Arizona terroir the best, and which will be the most beneficial to regional winemakers. Neither can say for sure what the next big thing will be in Arizona wine, but both are hopeful about the state's growing scene.
"Right now, I would say there's more of a delicacy of wines," Bagley says. "You have to focus a little bit more and pay more attention to what's happening in the nose. The wines that express our terroir are a little more delicate."
Pierce adds that with time, the conversation will be less about Arizona wine and more focused on the different regions found throughout the state.
Both contend that Malvasia Bianca grapes are a superstar in Arizona wine growing.
"Malvasia Bianca smells and feels like the place, which is why people have attached to it," Pierce says. "It's a crisp, aromatic, refreshing white wine that people love to have in Phoenix right now. It's beautiful, it feels good, it's a break from the heat."
Through their work at Yavapai College, Bagley and Pierce hope to continue developing resources for the Southwestern wine community, including the creation of an online data repository. Under their tenure, future opportunities at the college include upcoming courses on the culinary side of wine, hospitality, wine appreciation, and more technical courses like accounting for wineries, and consumer marketing.
For more information about the programs, visit the Yavapai College website.
Editor's Note: This post has been changed from its original version.