WALLA WALLA, Wash. – One of the premier community college winemaking programs in the United States is again without leadership.
Walla Walla Community College has eliminated the director position for its vaunted enology and viticulture program because of budget shortfalls. Alan Busacca, a renowned scientist and in-demand vineyard consultant, was abruptly dismissed April 23.
Busacca, who confirmed to Great Northwest Wine that his position was eliminated, had been in the job just 10 months.
“I was out after a 20-minute conversation,” he said.
That meeting with college leadership was the first time Busacca had been told there were budget issues, and he was assured his performance in the role of leading the Center for Enology & Viticulture was not a factor.
Busacca’s position paid $79,000, a 16 percent decrease from his previous teaching position at Washington State University.
Steven VanAusdle, president of Walla Walla Community College, told Great Northwest Wine that he spent all day Monday in budget meetings trying to cope with drastic cuts because of a loss of one-time funding as well as no tuition increase. He noted that in prior years, his budget decreased 25 percent but was offset with a 25 percent enrollment increase.
He still faces a campus-wide quarter-million-dollar budget shortfall.
“When we look at the scope and nature of the E&V program, we simply cannot justify the investment we had in it,” he said, lamenting the fact that he felt forced to make cuts to the program when it has earned tremendous recognition throughout the past several years. “We’re doing the best we can.”
VanAusdle said he appreciates the attitude of the wine program’s faculty and staff for being able to step up, and he expressed sorrow for losing Busacca’s leadership.
“I appreciate Alan and wish him well in the future,” he said.
Jessica Gilmore, dean of business, entrepreneurial programs and extended learning, said the move was based on “a tough budget structure” and not on any performance issues on Busacca’s part. She called the move “frustrating and disappointing” but said nothing will change on the academic side of the program.
Gilmore said she will take over Busacca’s administrative duties.
Many Walla Walla Valley winery stakeholders are just now hearing about the news. Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, is on the program’s advisory committee and was told of the cut after the fact.
Myles Anderson, co-owner of Walla Walla Vintners and founder of the community college program, had heard about it indirectly – “nothing from anyone in authority,” he said, adding he thought it was a drastic move. “They need leadership.”
Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden and also on the advisory committee, said he did not know about Busacca’s dismissal until he was called for comment by Great Northwest Wine.
“That’s news to me,” he said.
Clubb said he heard no discussion about performance issues, nor was he in the loop on the college’s budget problems.
Busacca taught at WSU, launched winery, vineyard
Busacca spent 24 years as a faculty member at WSU in Pullman teaching soil science and geology. He co-authored two research papers with Larry Meinert on the terroir of Red Mountain and the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Areas between 1998 and 2001. He helped research the government petitions for the Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Hills AVAs, and he authored the petitions for the Wahluke Slope and Lake Chelan AVAs. He also has written the petition for the proposed Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, which would be in Idaho and Washington and is in the approval process.
Busacca resigned from WSU in 2006 when he turned 55 so he could focus all his attention on his burgeoning viticulture consulting work. That year, he purchased land for Volcano Ridge Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA and began planting it with renowned grape grower Lonnie Wright. The 160-acre property has 24 acres of Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir in full production.
Also in 2006, he launched a winery, AlmaTerra, with Yakima Valley winemaker Robert Smasne. AlmaTerra opearted a tasting room in Woodinville from 2009 to 2011, then Busacca moved it to the Columbia Gorge town of Bingen, Wash., because he lived in the area.
Throughout this time, Busacca was in high demand as a consultant to those who wanted to plant vineyards and needed his expertise on soil, geology and the Ice Age floods.
Busacca makes move to Walla Walla Community College
A little more than a year ago, Busacca learned of the Walla Walla Community College director position coming open and decided to apply for it. Two months later, he was hired. He shut down his consulting practice and put AlmaTerra on hiatus – including closing the tasting room – so he could focus all of his attention on the new job.
“I really did embrace this new career, even though it was totally an option for me,” he said. “I really wanted to see what I could accomplish. Unfortunately, I was terminated with 20 minutes’ notice.”
Busacca said the program was moving in a strong direction, with a new transfer agreement in place with WSU.
Thomas Henick-Kling, director of viticulture and enology at WSU in Richland, was stunned to hear the news that Busacca’s position had been eliminated.
“He has been a great partner,” Henick-Kling said.
He said the two had been able to complete the transfer agreement, which allows students to transfer their credits to WSU if they choose to pursue a four-year degree. Henick-Kling also said he and Busacca were working together on a co-branding campaign between Walla Walla Community College and WSU.
“We have been coming up with all kinds of ideas on how to work together,” Henick-Kling said.
Busacca also was working on a rebranding campaign for College Cellars, the community college’s 3,000-case commercial winery, operated by winemaking instructor Tim Donahue. The program also was planning to add a wine business and marketing program that Busacca said would double the number of students in the Center for Enology & Viticulture to 60.
Anderson, who was an instructor at the community college since 1977, launched the E&V program in 2000. He retired in 2006 after finding his successor in Stan Clarke, a longtime grape grower, winemaker, wine writer and educator. A year later, Clarke died suddenly, so Anderson came back to lead the program.
After bringing on Valerie Fayette from Chateau Ste. Michelle as director, Anderson retired for a second time. However, Fayette left in 2011, so Anderson once again came out of retirement until Busacca was hired a year ago. Anderson, 74, retired for the final time last June and has no illusions about returning to what he started.
The loss of leadership comes at a critical time for the Walla Walla Community College program. WSU’s $23 million Wine Science Center is being built at WSU Tri-Cities, about 60 miles to the west, and it is gaining attention in Washington and throughout the nation. It will focus on research as well as winemaking and viticulture programs and will have a working winery.
Busacca, meanwhile, was quickly able to restart his consulting work.
“The Northwest wine industry is in a go-go phase,” he said. “There were a whole lot of jobs I was really reluctant to turn down but knew I couldn’t accept either because I had a full-time job (at Walla Walla Community College).”
After getting over the shock of being dismissed, it took Busacca just a couple of days to begin taking on consulting gigs for vineyard siting and design and even another AVA petition.
Busacca said the college agreed to pay him his salary through the end of the fiscal year in June, as well as cover his health benefits. He has cleaned out his office, turned in his keys and is the process of moving from Walla Walla back to his home in the Columbia Gorge.
“It was wonderful to again be a part of people’s lives through education,” he said.