Students of a WSU Extension wine class surround associate professor Michelle Moyer as she talks about crop management in the Langley vineyards of Comforts of Whidbey Winery. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Students of a WSU Extension wine class surround associate professor Michelle Moyer as she talks about crop management in the Langley vineyards of Comforts of Whidbey Winery. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Learning on the vine

Comforts Winery turns into WSU classroom

S ipping award-winning wine and taking an afternoon stroll through vineyards counts as class for Michelle Moyer, who is a professor of grapes at the University of Wine.

More precisely, she’s an associate professor with the Washington State University Viticulture and Enology Program that teaches the science and business of growing grapes, or viticulture, and making wine, called enology.

Moyer leads workshops around the state on all things vino through WSU Extension classes.

Last week at Comforts of Whidbey in Langley, she taught three dozen wine professionals and enthusiasts about grapevine nutrition, vineyard sprayer maintenance, canopy health and crop management.

They came from near and far for the $75 seminar that included lunch and a taste of Comforts sparkling white wines, called Sparkling Siegerrebe and Sparkling High Tide White. Both earned gold medals in the “sparkling” category at the 2018 Savor NW Wine Awards in March.

Owner Rita Comfort said she reached out to the WSU program about the possibility of teaching a class on Whidbey Island, home to seven wine businesses, four of which grow their own grapes.

“They said if I could get at least 15 to sign up, they could offer a workshop on Western Washington vineyards,” said Comfort. “In the end, 38 signed up.”

Comforts has plenty of room inside and out for a class. Its three-story, 2,500-square-foot facility combines a wine cellar, wrap-around deck, six-room bed and breakfast, and wide-open tasting and event room that can accommodate 100 people.

Comforts produces about 2,200 cases of wine annually, including red wine from fruit grown in eastern Washington.

Sean Karamanyan and Trina Nixon, employees of Whidbey Island Wine, located just down the road from Comforts, were among about a dozen Whidbey Islanders in the class.

“I’ve worked in the vineyards for six years, but it’s nice to get a fresh perspective,” Karamanyan said as he counted grape clusters per vine to learn how to estimate crop yield. “And it’s good to have the science-based facts for many things we do.”

Lauren Farley of Guemes Island attended the class with her husband Michael. Growing grapes on a half acre, Farley said her goal is to turn out white wine as tasty as Comforts.

“This is the best Siegerrebe I’ve ever tasted,” she said. “We’re down here to learn how to do that.”

Walking past Comforts’ llamas and cows wandering the sprawling 22-acre farm, Michael Farley said the workshop wasn’t as intimidating as he expected.

“It’s very informative and it’s more down to earth than I thought it would be,” he said. “I just want to know when to grow and when to cut.”

Comforts grows Madeline Angevine and Siegerrebe grapes that both produce white wine. There’s some 6,000 plants growing in orderly rows on four acres.

“Grape vines are like weeds,” Moyer tells the class gathered around her among the ocean of rows of green leaves and tiny grape clusters. “The canopy does not want to grow fruit, it wants to grow canopy.”

She then demonstrated two management techniques called shoot thinning and leaf striping that help improve fruit quality and control pests, mildew and rot.

Students then spread out among the rows for hands-on learning.

“I’m not even up to hobbyist standard,” admitted Nancy Helm of Seattle as she tore off leaves from the low part of plants. “We have a community vineyard near the Green Lake neighborhood,” she said. “I totally don’t understand canopy. My canopy is a mess.”

Helm and her friend turned the workshop into an overnight Whidbey Island bicycle getaway. They pedaled to and from the ferry in Clinton and stayed in Langley.

Brenda Paul just moved to Whidbey from Colorado eight months ago and she’s already dug into the homegrown wine craze.

“I have 100 plants on half an acre,” she said. “I’m growing Pinot Noir and Riesling. Hopefully, I’m not in over my head. I’m learning along the way.”

Paul’s reason for her new retirement recreation is simple.

“I love wine.”

Michelle Moyer, an associate professor of all things wine, demonstrates leaf stripping for 38 students from around Puget Sound who attended Wednesday’s Western Washington Vineyard Workshop.

Michelle Moyer, an associate professor of all things wine, demonstrates leaf stripping for 38 students from around Puget Sound who attended Wednesday’s Western Washington Vineyard Workshop.

Among a benefit of hosting a WSU class is free labor in her vineyard, joked owner Rita Comfort as she joined in the leaf stripping lesson.

Among a benefit of hosting a WSU class is free labor in her vineyard, joked owner Rita Comfort as she joined in the leaf stripping lesson.

Whidbey Island Wine employee Sean Karamanyan counts how many clusters of grapes are growing per vine as part of a lesson on estimating crop yield.

Whidbey Island Wine employee Sean Karamanyan counts how many clusters of grapes are growing per vine as part of a lesson on estimating crop yield.

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