Walla Walla community college wine program director dismissed

Andy Perdue Special to the HeraldMay 6, 2014 

WALLA WALLA -- One of the premier community college winemaking programs in the United States is again without leadership.

Walla Walla Community College has eliminated the director position for its vaunted enology and viticulture program because of budget shortfalls.

Alan Busacca, a renowned scientist and in-demand vineyard consultant, was abruptly dismissed April 23. "I was out after a 20-minute conversation," he said.

Busacca had been in the job 10 months.

That meeting with college leadership was the first time Busacca had been told there were budget issues, and he was assured his performance in the role of leading the Center for Enology & Viticulture was not a factor.

Busacca's position paid $79,000, a 16 percent decrease from his previous teaching position at Washington State University, where he spent 24 years as a faculty member at WSU in Pullman teaching soil science and geology.

Steven VanAusdle, president of Walla Walla Community College, said he spent all day Monday in budget meetings trying to cope with drastic cuts because of a loss of one-time funding as well as no tuition increase. He noted that in prior years, his budget decreased 25 percent but was offset with a 25 percent enrollment increase.

He still faces a campuswide quarter-million-dollar budget shortfall.

"When we look at the scope and nature of the E&V program, we simply cannot justify the investment we had in it," he said, lamenting the fact that he felt forced to make cuts to the program when it has earned tremendous recognition throughout the past several years.

Jessica Gilmore, dean of business, entrepreneurial programs and extended learning, said the move was based on "a tough budget structure" and not on any performance issues on Busacca's part. She called the move "frustrating and disappointing" but said nothing will change on the academic side of the program.

She said she will take over Busacca's administrative duties.

Thomas Henick-Kling, director of viticulture and enology at WSU in Richland, was stunned to hear the news.

"(Busacca) has been a great partner," Henick-Kling said.

He said the two had been able to complete the transfer agreement, which allows students to transfer their credits to WSU if they choose to pursue a four-year degree. Henick-Kling also said he and Busacca were working together on a co-branding campaign between Walla Walla Community College and WSU.

"We have been coming up with all kinds of ideas on how to work together," Henick-Kling said.

The loss of leadership comes at a critical time for the Walla Walla program. WSU's $23 million Wine Science Center is being built at WSU Tri-Cities in Richland and it is gaining attention in Washington and throughout the nation. It will focus on research as well as winemaking and viticulture programs and will have a working winery.

Busacca, meanwhile, was quickly able to restart his consulting work for vineyard siting and design and even another American Viticultural Areas petition.

He co-authored two research papers on the terroir of Red Mountain and the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Areas between 1998 and 2001. He helped research the government petitions for the Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Hills AVAs.

Busacca said the college agreed to pay him his salary through the end of the fiscal year in June, as well as cover his health benefits.

-- Andy Perdue runs Great Northwest Wine; www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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