Vineyards and wineries together directly contribute more than $200 million and 5,000-plus jobs to the regional economy. But when combined with the booming tourism market of hotels, restaurants, and tour companies whose explosive growth is rooted in the popularity of Santa Barbara wine country, it’s quite possible that the wine business — with an overall impact estimated to be $1.7 billion annually, according to a forthcoming study commissioned by the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Association — is indeed the county’s number one economic engine.
Alfredo Koch at Allan Hancock College wants to keep it that way. As coordinator of the Santa Maria–based community college’s agribusiness program, Koch offers two-year tracks in viticulture, winemaking, and wine business — altogether attracting about 500 associate-degree-seeking students per year — as well as a variety of affordable classes for newcomers to the industry and working professionals alike to continue honing their skills.
“In order to remain competitive and keep our very nice industry, it’s very important to invest time and resources into education and research,” said Koch, who worked on his family’s vineyards in Argentina from age 5 before heading north for graduate degrees from Cal Poly and UC Davis. “It’s essential, I would say. Nowadays, you cannot afford to damage the wines or make wrong decisions in the vineyard. You realize many years later, and it could be really expensive.”
Hired away from a teaching job at UC Davis in 2007, Koch replanted most of the college’s four-acre vineyards — exploring clones of pinot noir and chardonnay but also testing out five vines of 50 different varietals from around the world — and also launched a winery in an old building in 2008. That was torn down a couple of years ago, but today students enjoy a brand-new winemaking facility, complete with the latest equipment. And after nine years of trying, the campus winery was also bonded last fall, which paved the way for the college’s first wine release. Called Captain’s Reserve after Captain Allan Hancock, the brand includes 11 wines that will soon be released.
“Our college is very unique in the sense that it’s not expensive, you don’t have to commit to four years of study, and the courses are similar to what you see in other institutions,” said Koch, whose esteemed list of instructors include such well-known vintners as Michael Larner (Larner Vineyard & Winery), Doug Braun (Presidio Winery), Norm Yost (Flying Goat Cellars), and Wes Hagen (Clos Pepe Estate and now J. Wilkes). They teach everything from basic introductory courses to more focused classes on plant nutrition, sensory evaluation, and marketing strategy. There are also satellite classrooms in Lompoc and Solvang, which attract would-be winemakers from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and even San Diego. And the college also offers internships in the field and credit for students who are working on projects in a winery or vineyard.
“We have international students from Canada, Croatia, Japan, China, Mexico, and Argentina, and some from other states, too, like Massachusetts and Michigan,” said Koch, who taught at the University of Bordeaux in France this past summer in order to grow Allan Hancock’s global network. “But most students are from the Central Coast. Many work in the industry and just want to learn more, some want their associate degree and certificates, and many would like to transfer, by starting at Allan Hancock and then going to Cal Poly, Davis, or Fresno.”
Koch knows that many Santa Barbara County winemakers started their careers by working rather than studying, but while he values learning on the job, he suggests taking some basic instruction first. “I strongly recommend starting with a course, even some online courses, said Koch. “Then you understand a lot more. It’s fast, it’s better, and it’s not too difficult.”