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 American wine competitions: the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the Cascadia Wine Competition, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Seattle Wine Awards, the Seattle Magazine Wine Awards and the Great Northwest Invitational.

Here’s a look at some of the graduates who went on to become winery owners, winemakers or assistant winemakers, winning gold, double gold or best in class designations for their wines at these competitions.

Wine competitions have their own lingo, one that’s different from, say, the terminology of a county fair.

In the wine world a gold medal is the result of a negotiation among the judging panel.

For example, four judges may think the wine deserves a gold, one wants to award it a silver. Bowing to the will of the majority, the silver proponent is persuaded to give the wine a gold.

A double gold is awarded when every judge on the panel thinks it deserves a gold on the first round of tasting.

And a wine is judged best in class when all of the gold medalists in a given class, like red Bordeaux-style blends, for example, are tasted against each other and one favorite to rule them all is chosen.

Not all wineries enter their products in competitions, however. 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 our most famous local 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.

Although about 70 graduate of WWCC’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture are currently leading the winemaking programs at their respective wineries, not all of their wines have been submitted to the seven competitions named above.

But many of them have, and together they have racked up just over 100 of the coveted top prizes.

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 of these top awards.

What are their secrets to winning such high praise for their wines?

For Palencia, who grew up in the 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 advises. “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. I’m looking for all my wines to have a purity of fruit, regardless of the variety,” he adds.

After years of winning awards for Jones of Washington Winery. his Palencia Wine Company will open its new headquarters in Kennewick later this year.

Collins, who recently became winemaker at Rocky Pond Winery in Chelan, Wash., after 10 years making wine at Lake Chelan’s Tsillan Cellars, emphasizes that 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.”

The wines he crafts are made in the cool climate surrounding Lake Chelan, which many growers had considered to be too cold for successful viticulture.

Both Palencia and Collins 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.

“I think my wines have done so well because I have been able to come back to the valley I grew up in,” Collins says. “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.”

Abra Bennett is Walla Walla Community College’s writer in residence. She can be reached at 509-527-3669 or via email at abra.bennett@wwcc.edu.

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