WALLA WALLA, Wash. – One of Washington state’s leading experts on geology, soil and how they play a role in wine will lead the Pacific Northwest’s foremost viticulture-and-enology program.
Alan Busacca has been hired to run Walla Walla Community College’s vaunted Center for Enology and Viticulture. The program, started in 2000 by Myles Anderson, has more than 400 graduates, 30 of whom are head winemakers and winery owners.
“I just think it’s wonderful,” Anderson told Great Northwest Wine. “He’s going to take the wine program to new levels.”
Busacca’s early wine exposure in California
Busacca, 62, was born in Illinois, and his family moved to California’s Central Valley when he was 9.
“My parents would take us on picnics to the Napa Valley,” Busacca said. “I remember us having to entertain ourselves at Joe Heitz‘s winery, just before Napa was getting its footing.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in earth science in 1973 from the University of California-Santa Cruz, Busacca went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey in the Sierra Nevadas. He returned to school in 1977, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in soil science and geology at UC-Davis. Though he studied just across the street from Davis’ famous V&E program, he didn’t realize he’d end up in the wine industry.
“I recall the smells in the air would change radically in the fall when they were fermenting wine during harvest,” Busacca said.
Alan Busacca expertise in Ice Age floods
After graduation, Busacca landed in Pullman to teach geology at Washington State University. More than 15 years ago, Busacca began to realize the connections between geology and wine, especially in his area of expertise: the Ice Age floods.
Near the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago, the Cordilleran ice sheet that covered much of western Canada and the northern parts of Washington, Idaho and western Montana created an ice dam on the Clark Fork River in Idaho. Water backed up into western Montana, creating what is referred to as Glacial Lake Missoula. When the ice dam broke, a massive flood scoured Eastern Washington, creating the scablands in the Columbia Basin.
When the waters reached the lower basin around what is now the Tri-Cities, they created another body of water – Glacial Lake Lewis – which stretched from the foothills of the Blue Mountains in the east to the city of Yakima in the west. After a couple of days, the water drained through the Wallula Gap and followed the course of the Columbia River, helping to carve out the Columbia Gorge. It flooded the Willamette Valley as far south as Eugene, then drained into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria.
The ice dam re-formed, and the entire process repeated. Experts believe it occurred 80 to 100 times.
Using his knowledge of the Ice Age floods, Busacca began a business called Vinitas Vineyard Consultants. He was responsible for writing the petition for the Wahluke Slope and Lake Chelan American Viticultural Areas, and he also contributed to the petitions for the Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Hills AVAs.
Busacca is working on a bi-state AVA called the Lewis-Clark Valley that would be in and around the cities of Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho. He expects that AVA to be approved in the next 18 to 24 months.
Leaving WSU, starting wine career
After leaving WSU in 2006, Busacca teamed up with grape grower Lonnie Wright to plant the 22-acre Volcano Ridge Vineyard near The Dalles, Ore. At the same time, he teamed up with Yakima Valley winemaker Robert Smasne to launch AlmaTerra, a 600-case winery. Last year, they opened a tasting room in the Columbia Gorge town of Bingen, Wash.
With Busacca’s move to Walla Walla in July, the AlmaTerra tasting room will close at the end of this month. However, Busacca and Smasne plan to continue to make AlmaTerra wines, using Smasne’s tasting rooms in Woodinville and Kennewick to sell them.
Smasne said he’s not surprised Busacca is returning to academia.
“He’s so intellectual and so talented, I think he was a little bored,” Smasne told Great Northwest Wine.
Busacca almost didn’t apply for the Walla Walla Community College job, not realizing it was available until just a few days before it closed.
“When I read about it, I got all excited,” he said. “For many years, I have had great respect for Myles and the legacy he has created.”
Anderson said the hiring committee was pleased to see Busacca’s résumé.
“We had 20 very strong candidates, and he came out on top with a very strong consensus,” Anderson said. “He’ll do a great job.”
Anderson retires from Walla Walla CC for third time
For Anderson, 73, this will be his third retirement from the job. He has been with the college since 1977, and he created the V&E program in 2000. He found his successor in Stan Clarke, a longtime Yakima Valley winemaker, wine writer and educator, so he retired in 2006. A year later, Clarke died unexpectedly, so Anderson came out of retirement to lead the program again. When the college hired Valerie Fayette from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Anderson retired again to focus on Walla Walla Vintners, which he started in the mid-’90s. But she moved on in 2011, and Anderson returned for a third time.
Busacca will start in late July. That will give him a chance to close the tasting room in Bingen and find a residence in Walla Walla. In the meantime, he hopes to spend time with Anderson, whose last day on the job is June 14.
Busacca hopes his WSU connection will help create stronger ties with the community college. The Pacific-12 Conference university is prepared to begin construction on a $23 million Wine Science Center on its Richland campus, about 60 miles west of Walla Walla.
“It’s exciting for me to begin to understand that there are differences in the missions between a research university and a community college,” Busacca said. “It’s critical for us to forge a relationship with WSU. I’m excited to look at it with fresh eyes.”
He has received congratulatory phone calls from Thomas Henick-Kling, director of WSU’s V&E program, and Steve Warner, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission.
“I have lots of advocates and supporters,” he said. “That’s gratifying.”