Through research and education, the newly opened Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center supports Washington’s expanding wine industry.
Washington has over 850 wineries, 50,000 acres of wine grapes and 24,000 acres of juice grapes. The state is the second largest premium wine producer in the United States, generating more than $4.8 billion annually.
To continue solving problems and improving this important industry, the Wine Science Center opened Thursday, June 4, 2015, on the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus in Richland. The center gives wine professionals the technical know-how to meet industry needs with a research and teaching winery, laboratories, classrooms and meeting spaces.
Refining grapes and minds
ALSC Architects designed the 40,000-square-foot Wine Science Center following a “rough-to-refined” concept that is evident throughout the building. The facility concept represents raw, or “rough,” grapes entering the research winery and transforming into premium Washington wine. It also represents the refining of students’ minds as they learn and gain experience through the Viticulture and Enology Program.
Julie Pittsinger, who earned an enology certificate from WSU and now operates KARMA Vineyards in Chelan, Wash., helped celebrate the center’s grand opening with two commemorative sparkling wines. She poured them with KARMA winemaker Craig Mitrakul, who studied with WSU Viticulture and Enology Director Thomas Henick-Kling when he led the wine science program at Cornell University in New York. These limited-edition Brut and Brut Rosé sparkling wines can be purchased at the Brelsford WSU Visitors Center in Pullman or by contacting Debbie Schwenson at 509-372-7224.
The rough-to-refined concept is repeated in the Columbia Center Rotary Charity Garden behind the center. The plants are arranged roughly, resembling a wild landscape, transitioning to deliberately like a manicured garden, representing WSU’s pioneering contributions to Washington agriculture and the wine industry.
Horticulture instructor Gretchen Graber, along with Henick-Kling, Bruce Schwan with SCM Engineering and Gamache Landscaping designed this two-acre garden with sustainability in mind. Of the 600 plants featured, 80 percent are native to the Columbia Basin’s natural shrub-steppe habitat, providing an example of the ingredients—climate, soil, plants and insects—that make up southeastern Washington’s unique landscape and premium wine. (View photos of the Columbia Center Charity Garden planting party held April 11, 2015.)
“I look around, and I see the fruits of a long journey,” said Casey Fox, director of development for wine sciences in the Viticulture and Enology Program, at the grand opening.
The state’s Wine Commission and wine industry, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and dozens of private donors helped bring the Wine Science Center to fruition over a 15-year period.
“The industry has been extremely receptive to this project,” Fox said. “They understand the research that has been done, and the possibilities of what can be achieved with state-of-the-art facilities. They get a direct benefit from the research that will go on here.”
To date, $21.5 million has been fundraised for the center’s construction. About $1.5 million is still needed.
“The building is done,” Fox said. “The rest is equipment. We’re still working, and we have some great partners. By the end of summer, we’re hopeful we will be done.”
Donors to the center are recognized in a unique glass art installation by Deborah Barnard, owner of Db Studio at Barnard Griffin Winery. The glass panels etched with donor names are hung in the center’s atrium, which has a curved wall with metal beams to resemble a wine barrel.
The donor wall also presents views a wine scientist might see under a microscope, such as yeast cells, molds, crystals or bacteria. The microscope “slides,” infused with reactive glasses to create shading and depth, are overlaid with clear glass framed in oak with donors’ names embossed in black glass powder. All materials used were made in the Pacific Northwest.
For Jim Harbertson, associate professor of enology, the potential of a new research laboratories at the Wine Science Center is limitless.
Touring the Ron and Ann Morford Wine Chemistry Instrument Room with its namesake donors during the center’s grand opening, Harbertson explained the sophisticated wine chemistry and spectrometry that will soon happen here.
Once it’s stocked with equipment, he’ll share the lab with other researchers and PhD students. They plan to get right to work exploring ways to improve Washington wine.
“We want to make the best science in collaboration,” Harbertson said. “As long as we have good instruments, and keep the people coming and the projects going, the sky’s the limit.”
The Morfords live on Bainbridge Island, and were among hundreds of supporters who donated to build the new center.
“We love wine, and we wanted to give back to WSU,” said Ron Morford.
“We’re Cougs,” added Ann. “We want to see WSU succeed in ways no other school has.”
As Viticulture and Enology Program faculty, students and staff settle into the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center, they look forward to expanding their research, teaching and collaboration with national and international institutions.
The center has capacity for seven faculty, 14 post-doctoral students or visiting scientists, 24 graduate students, two administrative support staff, and 10 technical support staff for the research winery and laboratories.
Wine at WSU
WSU offers the region’s only four-year degrees in viticulture and enology or wine business management, preparing future leaders for the industry in state and out. Its scientists conduct research on everything from tannins and grape leaf-roll virus to yeast viability and deficit irrigation in vineyards.
WSU hired Thomas Henick-Kling, one of the world’s premier wine scientists, to lead its program using an endowment supported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Washington wine industry. He has spent time visiting with industry representatives in every wine-growing area of the state and led the planning of the new center and changes in the teaching program.
WSU is the sole state institution supporting agricultural industries in Washington through research, technology transfer or “extension” and the awarding of bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. The WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences is academic home to over 30 faculty working on wine-related issues, who are stationed across the state at research and extension centers (Mt. Vernon, Prosser and Wenatchee) and two campuses (Pullman and Tri-Cities). The college maintains these research centers, several agronomy farms and extension offices in every county in the state.
– Erika Holmes, Seth Truscott