A perfect pairing of science and partnership at the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center
For nearly 50 years, Washington State University has been in the business of wine research and education. Now WSU is taking things one step further with the opening of its new wine science center on the Tri-Cities campus.
Named for one of its greatest supporters, the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center is a world-class hub of research, education, and public outreach –everything WSU stands for as a land-grant university.
The $23 million center, considered one of the most technologically advanced wine science centers in the world, features research laboratories, winemaking facilities, a two-acre vineyard, greenhouses, a regional wine library, conference rooms, and classrooms.
Whether it’s in the labs or outside in the soil, students have endless opportunities for hands-on experience. Plus, the center will act as a collaborative gathering space for industry members, students, and researchers from around the globe to spark innovation and research breakthroughs. All of this stands in the service of the regional wine industry, and the pursuit of the highest possible standards of grape and wine quality and sustainability.
“To me, the most unique aspect and most valuable aspect is that we’re able to fully integrate the research, teaching, and the outreach in this new facility, and it’s in a location that makes it so enormously beneficial for the learning side as well as for the industry’s benefit,” said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the WSU Viticulture and Enology program.
Housed on the WSU Tri-Cities campus in Richland, Wash., the new wine science center is right in the heart of Washington wine country. This strategic location allows students the opportunity to connect with industry leaders. It also demonstrates WSU’s close partnership with the state’s $4.8 billion wine industry. In fact, the Washington wine community contributed $7.4 million to help construct the wine science center.
“Through the Washington State Wine Commission, every grower and winemaker in the state is contributing to the WSU Wine Science Center – a true vote of confidence in the future of research and education at WSU,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission.
Though it is now the second largest premium wine producer in the United States, Washington hasn’t always been that way. As Leon Adams wrote in his classic The Wines of America (1973), “the Washington state recovery is one of the greatest human stories in the wine industry.”
And WSU was in the forefront of that story.
It all started in 1969, when a pair of legislative hearings was held in Yakima and Seattle to determine if Washington’s protectionist wine laws should be overturned.
Before 1969, California was top dog in the domestic fine-wine market while the protective laws stymied the Washington wine industry and discouraged growers of varietal grapes (Vitis vinifera) and fine winemakers. Except for a few home winemakers who dabbled in growing varietal grapes, Washington’s Concord grape industry dominated the scene. The laws thwarted competition and locked up importation of fine wines with strictly regulated distributors. As a result, Washingtonians were left in the dark about their state’s potential to produce high-end wines, despite the fact the state’s soil and long growing season were perfect for it.
During the 1969 hearings, legislators listened to important testimony from two WSU scientists: horticulturist Walter Clore (also known as “Johnny Grapeseed”) and food scientist Chas Nagel.
Washington growers had every reason to think they could compete vigorously with California
Clore told the lawmakers that Washington could no longer compete with California in the production of the table grapes that go into juice concentrate and jelly. But, he told them, he had been researching the potential of “the vinifera type of grape. This is the European type of grape…. We have been working since 1937, at least I have, on grape varieties and grape problems in the Yakima Valley.”
In other words, Clore’s research indicated Washington growers had every reason to think they could compete vigorously with California in the newly burgeoning fine-wine market. Clore pointed out three important details:
- Washington is on the same latitude as the fine growing regions of Europe
- Washington has a longer growing season than California, with more hours of more intense sunlight
- Washington’s grape growing regions aren’t plagued with the insects and diseases that California has
The only negative Clore could see was a greater number of days with temperatures below zero.
“However, we do not have all of the insect and disease problems that California has, so we can grow grapes on their own roots. If the vines do kill back (because of the cold), they come back within the following year and you lose (only) one year’s crop,” Clore said.
Not only could Washington compete with California, Clore said Washington might even be a better grape-growing region than California. But only if the legislature would repeal the protectionist laws that dampened competition.
Chas Nagel, the food scientist from WSU, testified next. Nagel had recruited a wine tasting panel in Pullman, where he and his team rated up to 50 wines and compared them. When he was asked how Washington wines compared with wines grown and made elsewhere, Nagel replied, “In my opinion, quite favorably with certain varieties of any produced in the world, according to our taste panel.”
Fortunately for wine lovers everywhere, and despite intense lobbying from the California industry, the Washington legislature changed the laws that had kept fine vinifera grapes from widespread production.
Within a few years, Washington producers had the first of many hits on their hands, a white Riesling.
Since then, WSU students and researchers have continued to positively impact the Washington wine industry. WSU research on irrigation techniques, wine chemistry, crop protection and disease resistance, cold hardiness, sensory science, and more has rocketed Washington into the forefront of fine wine production. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah. You name it, Washington wineries produce it.
And there’s a good chance a Coug runs the winery.
Theodor (Ted) Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates–who also served as chair of WSU’s Wine Campaign–said there is a key correlation between the most successful wine regions of the world and proximity to higher education institutions conducting wine science research and education. California, Italy, France, Australia all have robust research and education centers. And for nearly 50 years, Washington has had WSU.
“We have always recognized the importance of a vibrant wine industry in the Pacific Northwest, and quality education is a key component,” Baseler said.