Behind the Scenes: Washington's New $23 Million Classroom for Future Winemakers

Washington State University's Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center, new this semester, gives the state an advantage
Behind the Scenes: Washington's New $23 Million Classroom for Future Winemakers
The fermentation lab, with dozens of small lot vats, is the heart of WSU's new center. (ALSC/Benjamin Benschneider)
Dec 3, 2015

The world's best wine regions often have a secret weapon—a local university with a first-class viticulture and enology program to train local winegrowers. Think Napa Valley and University of California at Davis, Bordeaux and its Université, and New York's Finger Lakes and Cornell.

Washington wineries are hoping to rival those alliances with an ambitious new investment in Washington State University's viticulture and enology program: the Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center. Students began taking classes in the new facility this semester, and in their first month they were already working with freshly harvested grapes from vineyards across the state.

“It’s a game-changer for Washington wine,” said Ted Baseler, a WSU regent and president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “This center provides such a dramatic push for education and research in this state.”

Viticulture and enology have been studied at WSU since the 1930s, but the center is a big commitment for the university and the wineries and state agencies who helped fund its $23 million price tag. It's an investment in an oft-overlooked component in every bottle of wine—the people who make it. "The vast majority of students stay in Washington, and it's such a huge advantage," said Baseler, who led the fund-raising effort.

The center will also allow WSU to focus on research specific to the challenges of winemaking in Washington. This year, the wine program has 90 undergraduates and 35 graduate students attending the campus, just outside Richland, in the heart of the state's eastern wine regions.

"We’ve learned precious lessons from other global wine regions, but to reach our full potential Washington must write its own book," said Bob Betz, founder of Betz Family Winery and an industry veteran. "The WSU center provides the means and impetus to help discover the possibilities for Washington wine.”

Washington state is arguably the most dynamic wine region in America today. Three decades ago, it was home to 20 wineries; now there are 850, with close to $1 billion in annual revenues, according to the state wine commission. U.S. sales of Washington wines were up another 10 percent in the first half of 2015, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator.

The new center offers the usual array of specialized labs that focus on chemistry, molecular biology, plant pathology and sensory analysis. Far more unusual is the climate simulator—an installation of plant growth chambers that can simulate temperatures from -30° F to 150° F to test varieties and clones on how they handle harsher growing climates. That data could prove valuable to winemakers around the globe contending with a changing climate.

The heart of the 40,000-square-foot facility is an impressive fermentation tank room, donated by Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, filled with 192 stainless-steel tanks, each with a capacity of 52 gallons, good for small-batch fermentations, and separate fermentation controls and monitoring units. A fully automated, optical sorter has been donated, allowing students to check fruit before it goes into the tanks.

Behind the center, several rows of vines are already populated with the grapes of choice for much of the state’s wineries, including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay, with room set aside for more. Trials are already underway to study the benefits of different trellising methods and ground cover options.

A library is nothing new at an institution of higher learning, but the Wine Center’s has a twist. Rather than books, sought-after verticals from some of the more famous producers of Washington’s wine history—Leonetti, Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon, Ste. Michelle and others—fill the shelves. More bottles will be added with each vintage. (Unfortunately, there will be no “lending” at this library.)

The center’s $23 million price was covered by private support totaling $15.3 million, with the remaining $7.7 million coming from public funding sources such as the state of Washington, port of Benton, city of Richland and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The WSU Ste. Michelle Wine Science Center:

The new $23 million center. The fermentation room Syrah under study Experimental vineyard Chardonnay Cover crops The library Winemaking's tiny agents
Education United States Washington News

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