CASTRO VALLEY -- With the arrival of harvest time, Bill Smyth is anticipating the possibilities -- a new crop of grapes to be nurtured into a fine vintage along with a small group of his own private students being transformed into winemakers.
Smyth, along with his wife, Jill Ramie Smyth, are the owners of Westover Winery and Vineyards in Castro Valley, where for 20 years they've produced a wide range of wines, ports and sparkling wines. The facility was one of the first 10 wineries in the Livermore Valley, Smyth said, and last year bottled about 4,000 cases.
In past years, Smyth has opened his facilities to winemaking students from around the world. Now he's focused locally, seeking a few committed area wine enthusiasts who want to learn the intricacies of turning grapes into wine. His new vocational program, "Small Vineyard and Winery Operations, Growing and Winemaking," is designed to teach all aspects of winemaking from the vineyard to the tasting room -- for free. It's a labor of love and unlike anything Smyth has encountered before, he said.
"This is designed to get a group of people in and train them how to run a winery from start to finish," Smyth said. "It's half classroom work and half hands-on."
Instruction runs the gamut from vineyard planting and pruning through processing, fermentation, cellaring, filtering, barreling and bottling. Quality-control, problem-solving, legal issues, labeling, wine sales and tasting room operations are also covered. Students come to the winery periodically, spend a portion of the day receiving instruction and studying concepts, then practice hands-on techniques. The two-year course is taught in modules throughout the year as the growing season and harvesting progress, allowing students the freedom to miss a module and pick it up later. Students can start at any point during the year.
The program began in spring of this year, and has only a handful of students, most of whom work or volunteer in some capacity at the winery. They include a meteorologist, an AT&T employee and several retired individuals, Smyth said. One student is Westover's assistant winemaker, Ken Tatum.
"I love learning more," Tatum said. "The goal is for anyone who takes this course to be able to go to any winery, walk in and be functional. When we're done I could go to another winery and start working there with no problem at all." Dan Hoover is a painting contractor in the Tri-Valley who's worked at Westover for about nine years, where he's picked grapes, helped with the crush, bottled, and worked in the tasting room.
"My son is studying viticulture at Davis, and I've been a red wine collector for several years," he said. "This has been a review in the technical aspects as to why we do what we do, the precision aspects of industry itself."
Westover's pilot program is a rarity in an industry where would-be winemakers often have to get their education at school, Hoover said.
"It's unusual to the extent that this is not a viticulture college," he said. "Most wineries are not so interested in telling you how they do what they do. They're not willing to share their knowledge. They'll have you come in and work for free and buy their wine. Bill is about the education."
Smyth struggled to learn the intricacies of winemaking, eventually receiving much of his training from local vintners, including Thomas Coyne and colleagues at Cedar Mountain Winery, he said. Many area winemakers have similar backgrounds.
"I know how frustrating it can be," he recalled. "A majority of the winemakers in the Livermore Valley ... learned by hard knocks. There are maybe only a handful who went to school to learn winemaking. I believe the best way to learn is by hands-on."
Westover's program likely will be limited to about 10 students per session. Not all the program's graduates will go on to work or volunteer at various wineries. In a valley with many small home vineyards, Smyth and his staff anticipate some will use the training to make wine for home use.
"For those who have a small vineyard on their property and wonder 'How do you actually make that into wine?' -- this is a great thing for that," said Tatum. "It's not for everybody, but a lot of people are interested in it."
Other enthusiasts may enroll simply for the opportunity to experience winemaking firsthand and to become more knowledgeable about the product, said Hoover.
"You don't have to be a winemaker to know how to make wine, but you need a base of knowledge to be a more informed consumer," he said. "Bill has been gracious enough to want to pass some of this on -- it was given to him that way. This doesn't have to be a closed-member club. The more consumers you have (with winemaking education) the better it is for everyone. It gives the consumer the edge to go and get what they want."
While the program is designed to turn out competent winemakers, it's also personally fulfilling for Smyth.
"I love teaching ... and I like the people," he said. "No one gets into the wine business because of money; you love it because you love the people and you love what you do."
For more information on Westover Winery
and Vineyards' winemaking course, contact the winery at 510-537-3932. The program is taught in modules throughout the year and takes about two years to complete. There is a very limited number of openings. Westover Winery and Vineyards is at 34329 Palomares Road in Castro Valley. More information on Westover is available at www.westoverwinery.com.