By DAVE WILKINS
Grape lovers in the Treasure Valley no longer have to travel outside the area to attend viticulture classes.
An introductory course offered through Ontario, Ore.-based Treasure Valley Community College began this fall.
The course has involved some classroom work, but much of the instruction has taken place in area vineyards.
"It's been really hands-on," instructor Martin Fujishin said.
Fujishin worked for several years as a row-crop farmer in the Treasure Valley before becoming a vineyard manager. He launched his own winery earlier this year, Fujishin Family Cellars near Wilder, Idaho.
He team-teaches the course with Ron Bitner, owner of Bitner Vineyards of Caldwell, Idaho.
Bitner has been growing winegrapes in Canyon County for nearly 30 years. He holds a doctorate in entomology from Utah State University.
Fujishin has a business degree from College of Idaho.
About 14 students were enrolled during the first semester, which wraps up Dec. 10.
Some of the students are interested in table grapes and want to get into commercial production. Some are primarily interested in winegrapes, while others are advanced home gardeners who just want to expand their knowledge, Fujishin said.
"The students are so much fun. They have such a varied background," he said.
Some of the interest has undoubtedly been driven by recent growth in the Idaho wine industry. There are 40 wineries in the state now, up from 38 in 2008. Grape plantings continue to rise. The state has about 1,600 vineyard acres, not all of them yet in production.
Instructors in the new viticulture program want to be encouraging, but they also want people to have a realistic idea of what it takes to succeed, Fujishin said.
"We want students to come into this with their eyes wide open," he said. "There is no silver bullet that's going to make you a millionaire in an instant."
Other classes scheduled next year include a soil science class and a record-keeping course focused on vineyards and wineries.
Instructors hope to give students the basic tools they need to start their own vineyard, from purchasing a bare piece of ground to harvesting the grapes and marketing them, Fujishin said.
"The long-term plan is for students to be able to earn an associate's degree in viticulture," he said.
Some of the classes will be held at the new wine incubator at the University of Idaho's business and technology center in Caldwell, and others will be held at the Treasure Valley Community College campus in Ontario.
The real classroom will continue to be area vineyards.
One of the program's advantages is the opportunity to learn from those directly involved in grape production -- people who gained much of their knowledge through trial and error, Fujishin said.
"We may not always be able to tell you what to do, but we can tell you what not to do," he said.
For now, the college is trying to roll out a few courses at a time as resources allow.
The new program isn't meant to replace a viticulture degree from a school like the University of California-Davis, but it's the next best thing in the Treasure Valley.
"For an industry this size, it's a good start," Fujishin said.
Treasure Valley Community College: 541-881-8822 or www.tvcc.cc.or.us