Erica Abraham realized her life’s passion while picking Syrah grapes in a Fallbrook vineyard.
“Everything changed that day when I harvested my first 100 pounds of grapes,” she said. “I knew that morning standing in the vineyard that winemaking and grape-growing was what I wanted to do. It made my heart sing.”
On June 4, Abraham became the first graduate of Cuyamaca College’s groundbreaking viticulture apprenticeship program, the only program of its kind in California that equips students with a firm understanding about all aspects of wine production, from growing the grapes to pouring the drink.
“This program completely transformed my career path,” Abraham said moments before she accepted her California Division of Apprenticeship Standards certificate and trade card.
The 3,000 hours of training and 14.5 units of coursework has prepared Abraham for work as an independent consultant to a growing legion of wine makers in the region, including those who have turned to growing wine grapes as a hobby.
“There is a general lack of knowledge when it comes to things proper pruning techniques and pest management among backyard growers, and this kind of expertise can be very helpful,” she said.
Her new line of work is a long way from her previous job as a disability analyst for the state.
Abraham, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, spent more than two decades with the Disability & Adult Programs division with the California Department of Social Services, where she spent her days contacting attorneys, doctors and petitioners to review medical evidence and adjudicate disability claims.
During her off hours, Abraham’s interest began turning to wine and winemaking, an interest that led her to the small Fallbrook vineyard to harvest some 100 pounds of grapes for her first “Grape to the Bottle” experience.
That was followed by further developing her palate at wine tastings and making her first barrel of Petit Verdot. When Abraham decided to take the plunge and change careers in July 2016, Cuyamaca College was in the process of launching its new viticulture apprenticeship program. She was the first to enroll.
“I have absolutely no regrets at all,” said Abraham, a San Diego resident. “You can learn a lot when you learn as you go, but you pick up so much more in a structured environment like this. The people at the wineries who work with Cuyamaca College not only gave me the experience I needed, but they served as invaluable mentors, too.”
The viticulture apprenticeship program, bolstered this spring with the planting of a new half-acre vineyard at the Cuyamaca College campus, includes skills training in everything from soil analysis to pruning to irrigation management. Graduates of the program are set to work as vineyard managers, with vineyard management companies, or as consultants to boutique and private growers.
Job opportunities abound. There are nearly 140 wine producers in the region, and the California Centers for Excellence found that 22 percent of small, owner-operated wineries and vineyards have a hard time finding qualified candidates for open positions, which has prevented their business from growing. “This program has taught me tangible skills by people who are respected in the industry,” said Abraham. “I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made to switch careers and come to Cuyamaca College.”