About three o’clock in the afternoon, a growing number of Phoenicians climb inside their hot cars, crank up the air conditioning, and head north to higher elevations in Yavapai County to secure a new future in wine grapes.
The end of the 107-mile drive up Interstate 17 and cross country to the northwest on Highway 260 is Yavapai College’s Verde Valley campus in Clarkdale and its viticulture and enology programs.
More than 100 students are enrolled in the college’s viticulture and enology curriculums. About half of those make the Phoenix-Clarkdale commute weekly for evening classes.
Most students are 30 years-plus in age. Some are looking for new job challenges or even second careers – wanting to cut their teeth in Arizona’s still infant wine grape industry.
“I am the most proud of teaching students how to be farmers,” says Nikki Bagley, Yavapai College’s viticulture director.
“We have this sexy industry that people want to join today. It’s one of the few farming opportunities attracting young people into agriculture right now.”
Bagley says ‘newbie farmers’ are interested in the wine grape industry; typically not multi-generational farming families.
Next generation of farmers
“The Yavapai College program is an opportunity for Arizona youth to get into farming and stick around,” the Arizona native said.” It’s a new opportunity for the next generation of Arizona farmers.”
Bagley and winemaker Michael Pierce are the core faculty members for the community college’s one-year program certificates in vineyard production and enology. Stack the two programs together with other courses and the graduate earns a two-year Associate’s degree in applied sciences in both grape programs.
The degree and certificates help prepare graduates for industry jobs including vineyard manager, winemaker or assistant winemaker, viticulturist, crew supervisor, cellar master, winery lab technician, entrepreneur, and tasting room manager.
Many Yavapai College viticulture graduates have jobs lined up jobs before graduation in Arizona, California, Washington, and overseas.
Bagley personally understands students’ interests in wine grapes. She lived in nearby Jerome where worked at fixing up an old house. She accepted a position at Merkin Vineyards in nearby Cornville and advanced there into vineyard management.
In 2004, Bagley earned her Associate’s degree in agriculture from Yavapai College, followed by a Bachelor’s degree in agroecology from Prescott College in 2008.
In 2009, Bagley began teaching viticulture classes part time at the college, and today is employed full time in her current post.
Arizona native Michael Pierce is the enology director at Yavapai College. The college winery is located in the 3,000-square-foot Southwest Wine Center on campus, located next door to a three-year-old Negro Amaro varietal vineyard – the school’s first grape planting.
The Negro Amaro planting is the first in Arizona.
“The planting was a pilot program to make sure vines would grow here on the rocky ground,” Bagley said. “They grew marvelously.”
The planting was sponsored by Merkin Vineyards in Cornville in the Verde Valley.
Yavapai College’s main campus is located an hour to the south in Prescott. The college’s main agriculture campus, featuring greenhouse and aquaculture studies, is in the Chino Valley.
Pierce’s family has deep roots in the Arizona wine grape industry. The family’s wine grape operation – Rolling View Vineyard – includes Michael’s father Dan Pierce at the helm, including 18 varietals.
The father-son team own two private wine labels – Saeculum Cellars and Bodega Pierce.
Prior to his Yavapai College enology post, Michael managed four vintages at the nearby Arizona Stronghold winery. He hails from Phoenix and graduated from Northern Arizona University with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in electronic media and visual communication.
Pierce then studied enology and viticulture at Washington State University, and later crushed grapes in Oregon, New Zealand, and Tasmania.
Wine grape production in the tourist-popular Verde Valley actually dates back to pre-prohibition days. It included a 75-acre vineyard operated by the Sherman family near Sedona. The prohibition ban in 1920 put the brakes on grape production.
In the early 2000s, the Verde Valley Wine Consortium worked to garner support for the once again emerging local grape industry and turned to Yavapai College to launch a viticulture program. The program began in 2009.
In 2011, the program added a one-year viticulture certificate program. A year later, the enology program was added, paving the way for a two-year associate’s degree program. The one-year enology certificate became available this year.
Winery and more
The winery opened last summer and can produce 3,000 cases per year. The facility’s tasting room is scheduled to open this fall.
Pierce says, “We hope to further grow the program with an emphasis on wine sales and marketing.”
At full build out, Yavapai College will include 13 acres under vine. The key to the program, Pierce and Bagley agree, is educational – teaching students how to grow wine grapes and the many options available in the winery.
According to the Arizona Wine Growers Association, Arizona has 83 licensed and bonded wineries.
In addition to drawing students from Phoenix, the program has had students from California’s Napa Valley, Temecula, and Los Angeles; plus Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington.
Italian, Spanish, Rhone focus
After the successful Negro Amaro planting, the Yavapai Foundation donated 20 acres to the school for additional varietal plantings. Most plantings will be Italian, Spanish, and Rhone varietals.
Subsequent plantings have included: 2012 - three acres of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Viognier; 2013 – Malvasia Bianca (two acres) and Cabernet Sauvignon (one acre); 2014 – Aglianico, Refosco, and Barbera (three acres total); and 2015 – Gamacha (Grenache) and Cariñena - one acre each.
Pending plantings for 2016 include Fiano and Tannat (two acres total).
Plantings include 900-1,000 vines per acre.
The timetable for grape harvests includes the first white varietals in the first week of August. Most grapes will be picked in September, mid-October at the latest.
Temperatures in the Verde Valley average in the mid-90s in the summer. Temps can drop into the teens during the winter. Weather wise, Bagley says the Clarkdale area is one of the safest areas in the valley to grow wine grapes.
The college and vineyards located in the foothills of Mingus Mountain are located at 3,700-3,800 feet above sea level. The vineyard soils include weathered limestone and schist with good micronutrient levels. Small amounts of nitrogen are applied by foliar application.
Rootstocks include mostly 1103P, plus some 110R stock. Bagley says the 110R has not performed well in the heavier soils.
Trellising is modified vertical shoot positioning with cross arms.
About half of the vineyard water supply is from rainfall and the balance is reclaimed water from Clarkdale.
Minimal pests, diseases
So far, pest and disease issues have been minimal with some crown gall but manageable. Sharpshooters and spittlebug pests are occasionally seen. A good beneficial insect population includes lacewings and ladybugs.
Flora in the rows includes Artemisia, nightshade, and western wheat grass.
Goal is education
As with the vineyards, Pierce says the main purpose of the winery is education.
“We are not trying to be ‘experimental to be experimental’ but allow students to experience the different styles and approaches to winemaking,” Pierce said. “I don’t try to push over my preferred stylistic approaches. I try to give the students options.”
About dream for 50 percent of the students is to start their own vineyard and-or winery.
The campus winery is about the average size of an Arizona winery. The college wine price point will be in the $18-$25 per bottle range.
Bagley says wine grapes contribute an estimated $50 million economic value to the Verde Valley.
Among the future goals for the Yavapai College wine program include the creation of a data repository for wine grape information. The center would include a knowledge base including the best viticulture and enology practices utilized in the inland Southwest.