WSU digs into science to make better wine
By STEVE BROWN
SEATTLE -- Looking to build on its reputation for producing quality wines, Washington is well on its way to establishing a Wine Science Center in Richland.
"Every world-renowned wine region has a research university partnering in its success. In Washington, that's Washington State University," said Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
WSU already has an innovative degree program in viticulture and enology, with 30 faculty members working to keep the Pacific Northwest industry environmentally sustainable and economically profitable while producing wines unique to the region. But the industry's demand for research solutions has strained WSU's ability to keep up.
"We have the faculty. We just don't have the facility," said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of WSU's viticulture and enology program.
The Wine Science Center, a $23 million complex -- $17.5 million has been raised already -- will be a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of wine country. Ninety percent of the state's wine production is within one hour's drive, Henick-Kling said.
In 2005, Washington was home to 350 wineries and 30,000 acres of winegrapes. Wineries have now doubled in number, and more than 13,000 acres of vines have been added to supply them.
Henick-Kling said he sees the potential for 200,000 acres, with each grape-growing region producing unique flavors and aromas. "We want wines that taste like Washington wines," he said.
Researchers will focus on finding new sites and determining which varieties to grow there. Terroir -- the variables of geography, geology and climate reflected in the final product -- doesn't just happen, Henick-Kling said.
"We know a lot about the soils, but we need to learn more about climate and its impact, and how to manage each site with distinct flavor goals in mind," he said. For example, understanding when and how flavors develop will allow growers to predict the best harvest dates.
Already WSU researchers have honed the practice of deficit irrigation and tools for better disease and pest control. The new facility will allow further development of cold hardiness and water and soil management.
Not only can researchers take the guesswork out of growing grapes, they can open up new directions in winemaking, Henick-Kling said.
Managing microbial populations is another way to express terroir, he said. Specific yeasts yield distinct flavor profiles, "each with its own personality."
"The flavor of the grape is modified by which microorganism we allow to prosper," he said. "There are about 100 different wine yeasts available, and there are likely billions out there. We're looking for undiscovered flavors and aromas. ... We want to find the chemistry behind color, flavor, astringency."
The wine industry has an $8.4 billion impact on the state's economy, Baseler said, "and we're just scratching the surface."
Beside producing better wine, the Wine Science Center will also produce "high-level scientific, well-trained candidates for employment, not just in Washington but around the world," he said.
Wine Science Center by the numbers
Land (contributed by Port of Benton): $300,000
Preliminary Design: $150,000
Architecture and engineering: $1,050,000
Site work (permitting): $750,000
Total Building: $15,250,000
Research equipment: $8,000,000
Construction will be underwritten through a variety of funding sources, including $7.4 million in assessments collected by the Washington State Wine Commission, private gifts, state and federal public funding and possible bonding.