Walla Walla’s College Cellars looks to the future

Today the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College announced the search for a new director. The institute is home to College Cellars, a teaching winery that along with the Institute have had an outsized impacted on the west coast wine industry.

“The number of graduates that are involved in various companies and businesses and wineries is astonishing,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, one of Walla Walla Valley’s founding wineries. “When you create such a strong, educated network of people, it has a multiplier effect in terms of its influence.”

To wit, at present L’Ecole’s entire cellar team comes from the college. “It's been the best thing that ever happened to us,” says Clubb of his new team. “They are wine savvy. I think they’re ultimately going to help us make better wine.”

Another one of the valley’s founding wineries, Woodward Canyon, has also seen the impact of the college. Woodward recently underwent a generational transition, where founders Rick Small and Darcey Fugman-Small transitioned leadership to their daughter Jordan and son Sager. Sager is a graduate of the program.

“One of the things I didn’t really expect to see was how entrepreneurial the program turned out to be,” says Small, noting the number of graduates that have gone on to start wineries and other businesses. These graduates have also taken key positions throughout the Washington wine industry as beyond.

The Institute was founded in 2000 (Full disclosure: I am currently an adjunct instructor at the college.) Since that time, the program has had over 350 students. Many of them have gone on to have successful careers as growers, cellar hands, winemakers, and hospitality workers.

Sabrina Lueck, interim director of winemaking at the college, credits the program’s success to the hands-on experience students get. “Our students truly learn by doing,” she says. “We have eight acres of vineyards and a 2,000 case winery where our students really do have true ownership over the product.”

The intimate size of the program and its tight relationship with the Washington wine community are also pivotal to its success.

“I think that we have a nearly unparalleled ability to refer students into jobs where they're going to thrive, because we get to know our students and their motivations, their goals,” says Lueck. “Then our program has been integrated in this community for [over] 20 years, so our staff members understand the needs of our local industry as well.”

The impacts of the program have been felt well beyond Walla Walla Valley and Washington. Graduate Joel Sokoloff is currently vineyard manager at highly regarded Soter Vineyards in Willamette Valley. He previously held the same position at Cayuse Vineyards in Walla Walla Valley, one of the top estates in the world.

“The biggest strength [of the community college] is giving an excellent foundation for being successful, no matter which route you want to take in the wine industry,” Sokoloff says. “They really help students find what they're interested in.”

Maryam Ahmed, founder of Maryam + Company in Napa Valley, is also a graduate of the program. Prior to founding her own company, she spent nearly five years as director of public programs at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Ahmed says the college offers a unique opportunity for students to gain direct experience and be embedded in a community that is home to over 120 wineries and tasting rooms.

“I really wanted a hands-on program,” she says of why she choose the college. “It was an amazing opportunity to both get this degree and be completely immersed in a wine region and a community that supports the school too.”

Lueck has been at the college since 2011, starting teaching there at the tender age of 23. She has served as interim director since 2021 and is leaving the college to work at the esteemed German producer Weingut Keller.

“I am leaving, but I love this program,” says Lueck. “The most rewarding and exciting thing for me has been the success of the graduates.”

With Lueck leaving, there will be a chance for the next generation of leaders to carry the torch, teaching new students and taking the program to the next level. Lueck says the next director, who she will have a role in hiring, will have the opportunity to have an enormous impact on Northwest wine.

“One of the missions of the college is to be the catalyst that transforms our students lives and the communities that we live in, and I truly believe we do,” Lueck says. “I've seen the impact that our program has had on our students individual lives and also our winemaking community here.”

Applications for the position are currently open.

Image of Institute for Enology and Viticulture and Sabrina Lueck by Richard Duval. Image of students in vineyard courtesy of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture.

Sean P. Sullivan

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