You don’t have to travel very far in the world of wine before you encounter the term terroir. It’s a French word with a complicated meaning that seeks to explain some of the mystery in every bottle of good wine. “It is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity—of roots, and home,” wrote Steven Erlanger in his recent New York Times article “Vive le Terroir.”
Terroir most commonly describes the combination of factors provided by Mother Nature that give a wine its character. It’s firmly rooted in the embodiment of a place. While these factors certainly play a big role in the development of a wine’s flavors and aromas, there is a more recent, local ingredient helping Washington winemakers create distinctive wines: science.
“Terroir does not just happen,” said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the WSU Viticulture and Enology program. “Some people think you just find this special place, plant some grapevines, harvest the grapes, crush them, and you get great wine.” The best vineyard sites won’t produce great wine without the knowledge of expert growers, winemakers, and researchers, according to Henick-Kling.
The new WSU Wine Science Center (WSC) under construction in Richland is poised to blend the advantages of Washington’s varied terroir, including those of the state’s thirteen American Viticultural Areas, with the research and teaching expertise of Washington State University to support the state’s rapidly growing wine industry. While efforts to raise the final $4 million needed to complete the facility are still underway, the project broke ground in September 2013 and is expected to be complete in early 2015.
Research and teaching in the heart of Washington wine country
The WSC will be housed in a 39,300-square-foot LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facility on the WSU’s Tri-Cities campus. The $23 million center was designed with several functions in mind. There’s space for research, teaching, and outreach education. The building will feature a grand central lobby where visitors can meet and mingle while viewing the research, teaching, and winemaking in action. The facility will also house an extensive wine library including a collection of special wines from various regions of Washington.
The center will feature specialized laboratories for wine sensory analysis, molecular biology, microbiology, and chemistry research, plus classrooms designed specifically to accommodate wine study—wider rows for access by moving carts of wine and glasses, and larger desks with space for trays of wine samples as well as laptops and notepads. New high tech equipment will enable WSU to dramatically increase its winemaking capacity from 150 to more than 400 batches per year. The 192 primary fermentation tanks will feature precise temperature control and several sensors for monitoring fermentation progress with digital data management offering a level of control currently not available in WSU’s research and winemaking.
“This is something many research wineries are missing,” said Henick-Kling. “Many will ferment in ambient temperatures or with the ability to cool, but not heat. [Temperature control is] essential for research comparisons and it’s actually very important for good winemaking—but it’s an expense that is often beyond what a winery can do.”
Washington’s growing conditions—our desert climate, volcanic soil with lake sediments and wind deposited loess, and varied elevation—are different from most other wine regions around the world. As one result, Washington is one of the few remaining wine regions to still grow grapevines on their own roots. This is possible because Phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae), an aphid that damages grape roots and leaves weakening and killing the vines, is not a problem here like it is in 95% of the world’s wine regions. With the help of the National Clean Plant Program and WSU scientists, Washington grape growers use Phylloxera- and virus-free planting material to help keep this disease out of Washington State.
“Information from UC Davis or other universities won’t necessarily solve some of the unique problems we have here,” said Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest producer of wines in Washington. “One of the most significant challenges is winter damage—when the vineyards get to minus 10 or 20 degrees. That’s not an issue in California. We need the science that will protect the vines and future fruit that is harvested from our vineyards—and that’s where WSU comes in, in a very special way.”
At the same time, WSU research will likely benefit the wine industry around the world. “There is a very historic and important study that was done at the Columbia Crest vineyard on irrigation,” said Baseler. “The result of that study by WSU has cut the use of water by about half.” He believes the research WSU conducts in collaboration with the wine industry will continue to provide benefits industry-wide. “It’s not just proprietary research by one producer,” said Baseler.
“The center will enable us to do the research necessary to keep this industry competitive, and it will help promote WSU’s ‘V and E’ program, strengthening our international collaborations because we will actually have space to bring people to,” said Henick-Kling, who is already arranging research and study exchanges with universities in Switzerland and Germany, with plans to include universities in France, Italy, Australia, and South America. “It will be a place for industry, teaching, and research programs to interact.”
From good to great
The idea for the Wine Science Center evolved from a research needs analysis commissioned by the Washington wine industry in 2006. WSU researchers and industry leaders were tasked with identifying key research needs for keeping the state’s wine industry competitive. A 2009 gap analysis of current research capacity and needs outlined in the report identified the lack of certain infrastructure and research funding. While WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program has been contributing vital research to the industry for decades, the report concluded that the program would need to expand if it is to keep up with the projected growth of the industry.
“It was clear to industry leaders that we need an educated workforce, research solutions, and problem-solving—and to develop new opportunities locally in our vineyards and wineries,” said Henick-Kling.
Baseler sees the project as a natural evolution of the work already being done at WSU. As an early supporter of WSU’s wine research and teaching programs, Baseler worked to get funding for faculty and staffing to help establish WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program. “Once we got the staffing, we knew that we needed a facility and that it had to be a state-of-the-art wine science center.
“The reason for the center is quite simple—every great wine region in the world has a cornerstone research and teaching university that supports the wine industry,” said Baseler, who is chairing the fundraising efforts for the WSC.
A perfect pairing, plus one
WSU teamed up with the wine industry and local community in the Tri-Cities to develop plans for the center with an efficiency none of the stakeholders could have achieved on their own. “Perhaps it’s because of the relative newness of this wine growing area and fast growth of the industry that people get along here very well,” said Baseler. “We have huge collaborative efforts between research, growers and wineries of every size, shape and type. Everybody is working together to make this a great wine region.”
The City of Richland joined the effort by creating the Wine Science Center Public Development Authority to oversee and manage the design and construction of the facility, and to ensure compliance with state restrictions on publicly funded projects that partner with private enterprise. The 3.5-acre parcel of land for the WSC is currently owned by the Port of Benson, but will be donated to WSU upon completion of the construction.
“Three years ago it was an idea with no money. Now, we are just a year away from having a completed project,” said Gary Ballew, economic development manager for the City of Richland. “That [timing] has been an amazing element of the project.”
The WSC is another example of the passion of the Washington wine industry, according to Henick-Kling. “Things move incredibly fast here—the center is an example,” he said. “When we do research, much of it is conducted in commercial vineyards and in consultation with the industry, so when they see something working they just pick it up. They don’t even have to wait for us to publish our research. If it works, it works.”
Early financial support for the project came from Washington’s grape growers and winemakers in the form of a $7.4 million donation from the Washington Wine Commission, the state organization that promotes awareness of the Washington State wine industry in the US and internationally. “The Wine Science Center symbolizes the power of partnerships and the commitment by those in our great state who want to see us become the leader on the global stage,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission. “We’re the second-largest wine producing state in the country, and our wines consistently receive critical acclaim. The Wine Science Center represents a solid investment in our future.”
A great year for Washington
WSU’s Wine Science Center will be essential to helping the Washington wine industry reach its goal of tripling the economic impact of the industry from $8.6 billion to $20 billion by 2020. It will also generate many other benefits for students and local communities.
“Until the mid 90s people didn’t come [to the Tri-Cities] voluntarily, they came for jobs,” said Ballew. He credits the wine industry for bringing positive change to the area. “The wine industry not only changed the perception of our community from the outside but from inside as well. We started thinking of ourselves differently. It has brought in art, entertainment, and dining opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
The center will also bring new opportunities for WSU students to participate in research and gain access to the industry. “The Wine Science Center, with its integration of teaching and research, is going to make our program stronger because students will have access to more faculty and research,” said Henick-Kling. “It will be so easy to bring in guest lecturers—experienced growers or winemakers—to teach our students what they do and how they do it.”
“The Wine Science Center will put students in the heart of Washington wine country,” said Kari VanBeek a viticulturist at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and 2006 graduate of WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program. “Students will be able to get involved in the industry even while they take classes. It’s such a huge step toward the greater good of the Washington wine industry!”
Ted Baseler sums it up this way, “I am very confident that with the distinct terroir and talent we have in this state plus the addition of the Wine Science Center, we will, no doubt, in ten years be considered one of the top three places to grow grapes and make wine in the world.”
– by Kate Wilhite