When people think of Oregon, many think of fermented drinks.
The State was an early pioneer in craft beer brewing, which began with a handful of homebrewers and hobbyists that were looking to take their products to market.
Oregon’s wine industry has also seen significant growth. Oregon wine is now generating $5.7 billion in wine-related and induced revenues. The industry also provides employment for more than 40,000 people in the state.
Commercial kitchens provide blueprint
While this big business has provided a boost for the Willamette Valley and for the western parts of the Columbia River Gorge, it has not fully materialized east of Hood River. The Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC) are looking to change that.
Gregory Price is the Director of the SBDC at the Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles. Price is also a board member of the Condon Chamber of Commerce.
In late 2021, Price was asked to support the revitalization of the commercial kitchen at CGCC and to help more catering businesses and aspiring chefs.
CGCC completed a study in 2018, and in their report identified culinary training as a key component for getting more people to utilize CGCC’s campus, a core goal of CGCC President Dr. Yara Mera Cronin.
“It fits into Dr. Cronin’s vision of creating a vibrant community-based campus,” Price said.
But Price says another item leapt out of the report: a demand for fermentation sciences.
When thinking of ways that commercial kitchens can help cooks scale-up their production in a space that can pass health and safety inspections – he thought the concept could carry over to wine, beer and cider makers.
As is the case with cuisine for chefs, brewers and winemakers need to learn how to not only make a good product but also how to market their product and build a successful business.
Beyond Brewers: business skills and industry training top priorities
Price says that beyond the interest in fermentation sciences and training the next generation of brewers and winemakers, there also is a need to train people to work in the industry and creating a sustainable and scalable business.
To do this, Price has brought on industry professional Matthew Ash, who has extensive experience in the wine industry and in leadership and management.
Ash’s tenure in the wine industry is impressive. A native of California’s wine country, Ash has lived in the pinnacle locations of great vineyards and wineries. “I was exposed to high-quality wine while living in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara and quickly realized that it would become a passion,” Ash says.
After moving to Oregon, Ash worked for Willamette Valley Vineyards and St. Innocent Winery.
“My wife and I moved to the Gorge in the Spring of 2019, and I went to work for James & Poppie Mantone at Syncline Winery in the cellar, vineyard and tasting room,” says Ash.
But beyond wine, Ash also has considerable experience in leadership and management, which will be a crucial part of the program at CGCC. Earlier in his career, he helped several companies improve their workforce training programs. Those companies include Starbucks Coffee, Peets Coffee, and Trader Joe’s – all of which are well known for employee retention and trainings.
Gregory Price of the SBDC believes that Ash can help lend his expertise to not only creating great fermented products but also the leadership and management needed to build successful companies.
It is a unique approach and could be a pioneer in the industry.
“There are great programs for production, but not for business,” Price says. “Marketing, branding, sales, the basics of how to start a business,” are issues that the best wine, beer and cider makers struggle to learn.
“In the wine, beer and cider business – there are importers, distributors, inter-governmental agencies that work on compliance,” Price says. “There’s lots to talk about apart from making beer, wine or cider.”
Collaboration, a shared vision and space
Price hopes that the fermentation program will result in the founding of an incubator, ideally in a historic building. This will allow for great public engagement and ultimately, to become a place for locals to collaborate and tourists to frequent.
“I see this as a place for students, professionals and entrepreneurs,” Price says and continues, “A place to engage in an immense body of knowledge with the highest quality of craft in the world.”
Right now, the program is in development stage and both Price and Ash hope to get the region’s attention and buy-in.
“If incubation occurs, it doesn’t have to be in The Dalles,” Price says. “If we don’t get community backing, whether it be the Port or City, it won’t happen.”
Price says that ultimately, an incubator will be established where there is community buy-in and financial support.
“We’ll go where the opportunity is,” Price says. “It will come down to finding the right building that is zoned appropriately – and where it makes sense financially.”
Long road ahead but classes to start this spring
Right now, the fermentation program is in its infancy. Matthew Ash is starting fermentation sciences course this spring at CGCC to kick things off. The one-year certification course will be taught by Ash and is designed to help people learn how to produce and make a quality product. Beyond that, Price says the direction of the program will depend on local participation.
Should that local participation show-up, there is considerable opportunity.
“There is a seasonal nature of employment in the Gorge,” Price says. “Having a thriving program like this where people can go through a certification program, a degree program and go into the workforce will infuse life and expand other business.”
Price says that there is a three-prong approach to building the fermentation program and establishing an incubator where wine and cider makers along with brewers can come together under one roof with other entrepreneurs and industry workers.
“It is a three-prong approach,” Price says. “Start with fermentation sciences courses, then entrepreneurship and then workforce development.”
Right now, the program is in its discovery and development stage. The SBDC wants to get more feedback from people in Wasco, Sherman, and Gilliam County and hopes that residents of these counties will participate in the fermentation sciences program. To register for classes or to learn more, contact the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC) by calling (541) 506-6121 or visit https://oregonsbdc.org/centers/columbia-gorge-sbdc/.