Walla Walla Community College grads excel in West Coast judgings

Victor Palencia, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program, grew up helping his father manage vineyards in the Yakima Valley. These days, Palencia is one of Washington state’s most prolific and decorated winemakers. (Photo by Richard Duval Images)

WALLA WALLA — From Mattawa to Maine, graduates of the Walla Walla Community College enology and viticulture program have been proving themselves to be golden.

While most of the grads are snapped up by the Washington winemaking industry as soon as the ink is dry on their diplomas, WWCC alumni are making wine as far away as Michigan, Virginia, Maine, Texas and Maryland.

Many are receiving the highest accolades from judges in some of the most prestigious United States wine competitions: the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the Cascadia International Wine Competition, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Seattle Wine Awards, the Seattle Magazine Wine Awards and the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition.

Although about 70 WWCC grads are leading the winemaking programs at their respective wineries, not all of their wines have been submitted to the competitions named above. Those who have racked up more than 100 top awards, and they do not include acclaim earned as students making wine for College Cellars of Walla Walla under the instruction of educators Tim Donahue and Sabrina Lueck.

When it comes to accumulated top medals, two of the winningest winemakers are 2005 graduate Victor Palencia and 2007 graduate Shane Collins. Each has won 11 top awards from these six West Coast competitions. What are their secrets to winning such high praise for their wines?

For Palencia, who grew up in the Yakima Valley vineyards where his father worked, it’s all about knowing your land and its fruit.

“Focus on what the site and soil can deliver consistently, and use that as you develop your winemaking style,” he said. “This allows you to focus on the nuances of the art, rather than on fixing the results of a challenging vineyard.

“I seek out unique vineyard sites that express the qualities I’m looking for, then do my best to capture them in the bottle,” he added. “I’m looking for all my wines to have a purity of fruit, regardless of the variety.”

Palencia will continue to make award-winning wine on the Wahluke Slope for Jones of Washington, but this winter he moves his own Palencia Wine Co. from Walla Walla to Kennewick’s new Columbia Garden Wine Village.

Collins helps raise profile of Lake Chelan region

Shane Collins, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s viticulture and enology program, oversees the 2017 harvest of Double D Vineyard, one of two estate sites he pulls from as the new winemaker for Rocky Pond Winery in Chelan, Wash. (Photo by Richard Duval Images)

Last summer, Collins became winemaker and general manager at Rocky Pond Winery after 10 years making wine at Lake Chelan’s Tsillan Cellars. He emphasizes there isn’t a magic potion for garnering accolades, because each vintage presents new challenges.

“What there is,” he says, “is passion and drive. That is something that is very strong in both Victor Palencia and me. Also, working in the same location for 10 years allowed me to learn an incredible amount about a specific spot in the ground and how that translated into the wines that were made from it.”

Many of wines Collins crafts are grown in the cool climate surrounding Lake Chelan, a region that growers had considered to be too cold for successful viticulture.

“I think my wines have done so well because I have been able to come back to the valley I grew up in,” he continues. “There is a connection to this valley and its beauty that sparks a fire inside of me, allowing me to put everything I have into the wines I make.”

Both of these young winemakers live and breathe the elusive concept of terroir, the desire to reveal a sense of place in the wines they make. Training, and the ability to capture terroir, have helped them make wines that are as good as gold.

Honor roll grows for College Cellars graduates

Chris Peterson, winemaker for Avennia, worked at DeLille Cellars for eight vintages.

Chris Peterson, winemaker and co-owner of Avennia in Woodinville, Wash., worked at DeLille Cellars for eight vintages. He graduated at the top of his class at Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program. These days, he also makes wine for Passing Time, owned by retired NFL quarterbacks Damon Huard and Dan Marino. (Photo courtesy of Avennia)

Not all wineries enter wines in competitions. Wineries must pay for each bottle they enter, and not all winemakers are interested in submitting their wines to the scrutiny of a panel of judges whose tastes are arguably subjective. Some of the Walla Walla Valley’s most famous wineries are so exclusive that they sell wine by subscription only; they don’t seek additional fame, and they don’t have extra wine to sell.

However, here’s a look at some of the WWCC graduates who first helped College Cellars earn acclaim and have gone on to become winery owners, winemakers or assistant winemakers, winning gold, double gold or best in class designations for their wines at these highly regarded competitions.

Class of 2003
Chris Peterson – Avennia (Woodinville)

Class of 2004
Matt Huse – Five Star Cellars (Walla Walla)
Marcus Miller – Airfield Estates (Prosser)
William vonMetzger – Walla Walla Vintners
Andrew Wilson – Goose Ridge Vineyards (Richland)

Class of 2005
Victor Palencia – Jones of Washington/Palencia Wine Co. (Mattawa/Kennewick)
Ryan Raber – Tertulia Cellars (Walla Walla)
Noah Reed – William Church Winery (Woodinville)

Class of 2006
Freddy Arredondo – Cave B Estate Winery (Quincy)
Doug Simmons — Eleganté Cellars (Walla Walla)

Class of 2007
Shane Collins – Rocky Pond Winery (Chelan)
Brian Rudin – Canvasback Wine (Walla Walla)
Derrek Vipond – Long Shadows Vintners (Walla Walla)
Joel Waite – CAVU Cellars (Walla Walla)
Tanya Woodley – SuLei Cellars (Walla Walla)

Class of 2008
Ryan Crane – Kerloo Cellars (Walla Walla)
Aaron Peet – Cellardoor Winery (Lincolnville, Maine)
Marcus Rafanelli — formerly at William Church Winery

Class of 2009
Anthony Lombardo – Kana Winery (Yakima)

Class of 2011
Christopher Castillo – Castillo de Feliciana (Milton-Freewater, Ore.)

Class of 2012
Michael Prout – Tamarack Cellars (Walla Walla)
Rick Sewell – Scarlet Oak Barrels (Kennewick)
Sean Smith – Bergevin Lane Vineyards (Walla Walla)

Class of 2013
Jason Fox – Lagana Cellars (Walla Walla)
Cody Janett – Forgeron Cellars (Walla Walla)

Class of 2014
John Little – Rio Vista Wines (Chelan)
Joshua West – Elephant Seven Wines (Walla Walla)

Class of 2015
Ben Stuart – Burnt Bridge Cellars (Vancouver)

Class of 2016
Amy Alvarez-Wampfler — Sinclair Estate Vineyards/Abeja (Walla Walla)
Brad Binko – Eternal Wines (Walla Walla)
Neil Johnston – Dumas Station Wines (Dayton)
Christopher Wright – Thurston Wolfe Winery (Prosser)

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