WEST SALEM — Chad Alexander said one of his best talents when working in the insurance industry was talking to customers in person or on the phone.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t something his boss measured in job performance reviews. Last year, Alexander decided to leave that job in search of a new career where that skill is valued.

He enrolled in Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Wine Studies Center, and has found that his gift for talking is welcomed in tasting rooms.

“I’m on career No. 3. The first was classical music. The second was insurance,” he said. “I didn’t initially quite know why wine was on the radar. I just knew it was. It wasn’t until I started taking the classes that I realized that I had very definitely made the right decision.”

He started in the introduction to winemaking and vineyard management classes. Then an opportunity arose for a job in the Northwest Wine Studies Center’s tasting room. He applied and got it.

“After the second shift that I had done here, I realized this is what I want to do,” Alexander said. “I seem to really enjoy having this as the center of my wine universe.”

Training students like Alexander for the world of educating people about wine and creating an experience related to wine is the reason Chemeketa added a wine hospitality operations certificate to the established programs of vineyard management and winemaking.

Jessica Sandrock, the director of agriculture science and wine studies, said the 36-credit certificate was the direct result of feedback from people in the wine industry.

“What we hear often from the wine industry is that we need to hire people who can talk about wine,” she said. “We can hire people who are good at sales and we can hire good business people, but if they don’t understand wine or they can’t talk about wine, that’s the missing piece.”

The certificate can provide education in hospitality and tourism if a student already has a background in wine, or experience with wine for those already familiar with the tourism industry.

“We kind of joke and call it a chose your own adventure certificate,” Sandrock said. “Because it really is designed for students to create a bridge between maybe some experience that they already have that they want to expand and be a better candidate for a job in the wine industry that is related to hospitality.”

Last fall, the program opened its tasting room at the center, located off Doaks Ferry Road outside of West Salem. The winery at the college is licensed and bonded, meaning that it can sell the student-made wine produced there to customers under the label Chemeketa Cellars.

“That’s been a vision and a dream for this program for a long time,” Sandrock said. “Not just because we end up with wine, but because it’s a great way to just complete the circle.”

The program began in 1999. The first vines of what would become an eight-acre vineyard were planted that year. Instructors developed the vineyard management curriculum first, then added winemaking. Students can earn associates’ degrees in both.

Early students of the program were mostly those who wished to open their own vineyards or wineries, Sandrock said.

“We still have students that that’s their story. They want to learn how to do it so they can do it for themselves,” Sandrock said. “But we have seen an increase, probably since 2013, in the number of students who really want to take classes here to get jobs in the industry.”

She was hired as a full-time instructor in 2013, and has seen rapid growth in Oregon’s wine industry since then.

In 2018, wages from wine-related jobs in Oregon topped $1 billion, according to the Oregon Wine Board. From 2013 to 2018, the number of wine jobs in the state increased to 17,099 to 29, 738, and revenue from wine tourism jumped to $787 million in 2016, a 162 percent increase from 2013.

Sandrock understands the increasing interest in Oregon wine. She has it, too.

“There’s so much to learn, too. That’s why I love wine,” she said. “There’s so much to learn in the farming of grapes and to understanding how to grow grapes well. There’s so much to learn in the winemaking process, and tasting wine and experimenting with it. It’s endless.”

Students attending a winemaking class last week said it’s an appreciation of wine that drew them to the program.

“I did a harvest in New Zealand and loved it,” said Teddy Kramer, a winemaking student. “I enrolled immediately.”

Kramer has been part of the program for almost two years. Last week, her class was learning about filtration and preparing to bottle pinot gris that was pressed last September. 

Someday, that wine will be offered at the tasting room, which is open on Wednesday evenings. Sunday hours will be added on Memorial Day weekend.

Sandrock said people who visit the tasting room often aren’t aware there is a teaching winery on-site. The tasting room is a good way to tell people about the program, she said.

“Our goal is to expand hours. We’d love to be open all the time and be a real resource for people who come and want to learn about wine, or start a wine tour, or go around the area and taste wine,” Sandrock said. “We would love to help them start that process, but that’s the next phase.”

For more information: go.chemeketa.edu/winestudies. The Northwest Wine Studies Center is located at 215 Doaks Ferry Road, NW, Salem.

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