Pellissippi State, Rocky Top Wine Trail partner on new grape and wine industry apprentice program

Jacob Lindsey and Nick Gipson sign papers to start grape and wine industry apprenticeship
Pellissippi State alumni Jacob Lindsey and Nick Gipson, seated, sign papers to become apprentices in the grape and wine industry. The registered apprenticeship, a new partnership between Rocky Top Wine Trail Inc. and Pellissippi State, kicked off June 1 with a signing ceremony celebrated by (standing, from left) Todd Evans, director of workforce solutions and program manager for apprenticeships at Pellissippi State; Teri Brahams, executive director of Economic and Workforce Development at Pellissippi State; Michael Coombs, winemaker for Hillside Winery, where Lindsey works; Don Collier, owner of Rocky Top Wine Trail Inc.; William Grogan, winemaker at Mountain Valley Winery, where Gipson works; Chris Milne, a Pellissippi State biology professor and vintner who teaches classes for Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA); and Kane Barker, dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences for Pellissippi State.

Those who want to advance in their careers with the grape and wine industry can now do so through Pellissippi State Community College. 

Pellissippi State’s Business & Community Services has partnered with Rocky Top Wine Trail Inc. to begin the first registered apprenticeship program in East Tennessee for those interested in a career in the grape and wine industry. 

Pellissippi State alumni Nick Gipson and Jacob Lindsey, both of whom earned their associate degrees in fall 2018 and are currently employed by wineries, began the 12- to 18-month apprentice program as cellar workers June 1.  

The new grape and wine industry apprentice program, registered through the U.S. Department of Labor, combines online classes and testing with hands-on practice and training. Once they complete the program, Gipson and Lindsey will become journeyworkers at the wineries where they work. 

“This partnership shows the strength of Pellissippi State’s resources to best support and grow the changing needs of a well-trained workforce in East Tennessee,” said Todd Evans, director of workforce solutions and program manager for apprenticeships at Pellissippi State. “We listened to the needs of our client and developed a program that utilizes Pellissippi State faculty as well as hands-on supervision by Rocky Top Wine Trails’ assigned coaches and mentors, all while meeting state and federal requirements.” 

The Rocky Top Wine Trail, Tennessee’s first and most visited wine trail, was established in 2008, with three local wineries. There are now five participating wineries throughout Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, enabling guests to sample more than 70 wines by the time they have completed the Trail.  

Apprenticeships such as Gipson’s and Lindsey’s support the development of the people powering the local wine industry and its growth as an economic driver in this area. 

“We have been very pleased with the partnership with Pellissippi State for not only developing our current team members, but also for the future apprenticeships and workforce training they can provide,” said Jonathan Ball, chief operating officer for Rocky Top Wine Trail. “Our ability to grow as a company and as an industry will rely on the current and future skills of our team members. Pellissippi State not only listened to our needs, but presented a training and development plan aligned with our business goals in a flexible and cost-effective strategy.” 

Business & Community Services collaborated with Chris Milne, a Pellissippi State biology professor who has a Ph.D. in plant and soil science, and the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) to create the grape and wine industry apprentice program. Milne noted that VESTA also offers apprentice programs in Assistant Winemaker, Industrial Maintenance Technician, Production Technician, Tasting Room Associate, Vineyard Worker, Vineyard Foreman and Vineyard Manager. 

“Students who are interested in these classes sign up through VESTA, but we also have made it so that every one of these VESTA classes can be applied as Prior Learning Assessment for credits toward an Associate of Applied Science in General Technology with a focus in Viticulture, Enology or Wine Business Entrepreneurship at Pellissippi State,” said Milne, a vintner who teaches Botanical Viticulture for VESTA, a national grape and wine education program that combines the flexibility of industry-validated online instruction, instructor-guided education from industry professionals and hands-on mentored experiences at vineyards or wineries. 

Pellissippi State’s new apprenticeship program for the grape and wine industry, which Milne has been working on for two years, is set up to allow students to focus their studies on Viticulture (grape growing), Enology (wine making) and Wine Business Entrepreneurship. And because Pellissippi State’s courses that support VESTA’s apprentice programs are taught online through Zoom, students from across the state and the country could earn their degrees from Pellissippi State. 

“Last fall I had eight students through VESTA, and all of them were out of state,” Milne said. “That’s one of the really cool things about the program: it’s not just limited to Tennessee students.” 

Another benefit to apprenticeship programs is that apprentices are paid by their employers while they are going through the program, Milne added.  

“The goal is not only to train the apprentices, but when they finish, they will get a bump in pay,” Milne said. 

Nick Gipson, left, and Jacob Lindsey show off wines
Pellissippi State alumni Nick Gipson, left, and Jacob Lindsey show off a couple of the award-winning wines produced by Rocky Top Wine Trail Inc., where they are apprenticing in the grape and wine industry.

Lindsey and Gipson jumped at the opportunity for more education in the grape and wine industry when Ball offered to send them through the VESTA program on scholarship. 

“I am hoping to gain more knowledge of the grapes in the vineyard so that I can fully understand the process and start to develop my own style and ideas,” said Lindsey, who is the cellar master at Hillside Winery in Sevierville, where he has worked for two years. “I’m trying to learn everything I can from the winemakers who are here now. Eventually I’d love to work at a small winery in the country and be able to make new and exciting blends and flavors.” 

Gipson, who works as an assistant winemaker at Mountain Valley Winery in Pigeon Forge, noted that the VESTA courses would help fill out the knowledge he’s gained on the job. 

“The schooling will definitely help me in understanding the science behind winemaking,” said Gipson, who has been working in the industry for about a year and a half. “It’s been fun and exciting so far. I’m learning as much as I can because I’m pretty open right now about where I want my career to go.” 

Pellissippi State’s apprenticeship programs aren’t just for wineries. Using assessments and individualized consulting, Business & Community Services helps local companies determine where performance and skills gaps exist in their workforce. From there, Business & Community Services staff work with employers to develop a strategy, creating and delivering custom workforce solutions to employers based on how their company does business, tailored to their specific needs and scheduled to fit their timeline. 

For more information about apprenticeships or what Business & Community Services can do for your company, contact Todd Evans at or 865-539-7164.