Showing off some of the wine labels from the Allan Hancock College Vineyard | Credit: Courtesy

Hidden on the flat, alluvial plains between Santa Maria’s suburban tracts, strip malls, senior centers, and ballfields, the Allan Hancock College Vineyard doesn’t boast the steep hillsides or stellar views that typify so much of Central Coast wine country. 

But these four acres, where 50 different varieties and clones of wine grapes grow, serve as an outdoor classroom, teaching the next generation of vintners how to prune, when to pick, and almost everything else required to manage a vineyard. Just across the street, hidden behind the institutional facades of a community college campus, these same students learn how to turn those grapes into wine, working together to produce more than a dozen bottlings each year. 

Hands-on learning is what it’s all about at the Allan Hancock College Vineyard | Credit: Courtesy

“We are focusing more on the practical winemaking operations,” explained Alfredo Koch, the head of Allan Hancock College’s viticulture and enology department, where he started in 2007 and helped build the on-site winery in 2014. “The students love the challenge of making the wine.”

The wines, typically priced between $15 and $20, tend to be rather excellent, frequently on par or outperforming wines that cost exponentially more. I say as much as someone who reviews, through a blind tasting process, more than 200 wines from across the Central Coast every month for my critic’s job at Wine Enthusiast. I am repeatedly, and happily, surprised every time I see yet another Allan Hancock pinot noir or syrah or malbec scoring higher than brands made by better-funded and more experienced teams. 

Much of that has to do with the quality of the faculty. In addition to Koch, who started working on his family’s vineyards in Argentina at age 5 before getting degrees at Cal Poly and UC Davis, there are: vineyard operations instructor Ric Fuller, who has more than 40 years of experience in Monterey and Paso Robles; the recently retired Doug Braun, who left last year after teaching at the college for more than three decades; winery lab specialist Kelsie Norris, who handles much of the winery’s day-to-day operations; and Federico Casassa, a professor of sensory analysis at Cal Poly.

But there’s also something special about that suburban vineyard too. Though not particularly beautiful, geologically unique, or dramatically sloped, the vines actually lie to the west of the border of the federally recognized Santa Maria Valley appellation, which may make the property the closest commercial vineyard to the coast in the entire Santa Maria area. 

My rough calculations show Allan Hancock College Vineyard being fewer than 12 miles from the closest coastline, which is slightly closer as the crow flies to the coast than Solomon Hills Vineyard, usually proclaimed as the westernmost vines of the valley. It’s also much closer than most of the Sta. Rita Hills down in the Santa Ynez Valley, save for properties like La Barge and Duvarita that ride the line around 11 miles from the coast. But no matter the right math, the vineyard’s coastal proximity ensures that the Pacific Ocean’s influence keeps acidity bright and flavors fresh on the resulting wines.

Getting your hands dirty is part of the fun of working in the Allan Hancock College Vineyard. (Left) Pinot noir | Credit: Matt Kettmann

They can be tasted for $5 and purchased every Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. at the campus winery, as well as during special events that include a 5K fun run every May and a festival featuring other colleges wineries from Cal Poly, Fresno State, UC Davis, and elsewhere held each June. The vineyard and winery will also be open to the public during the fifth annual Santa Barbara County Farm Day on September 23, just one of 17 stops that people can make as part of a full-day agricultural experience. 

[Click to enlarge] Credit: Courtesy

The attention couldn’t come at a better time, as Koch explained that admissions to the program have yet to recover from pre-pandemic highs. There are about 150 students currently, but the program — which also includes the potential to study wine at the University of Bordeaux — can handle twice as many. Many graduates go on to Cal Poly, Fresno State, Oregon State, or other wine programs, but plenty of people go right into making wine for a paycheck. “There has been high demand in the industry,” confirmed Koch. 

Visit Allan Hancock College Vineyard & Winery during the Fifth Annual Santa Barbara County Farm Day on September 23. See a full schedule at Allan Hancock College Winery is also participating at the 39th Santa Barbara Vintners Festival on Saturday, October 14, at Vega Vineyard. See for tickets and details. For more on the winery and to buy the wines, see


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