Washington's wine industry got a boost from researchers at Washington State University (WSU) last week. The university opened its new $500,000 enology research lab at its Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser, Wash. The working winery will be the largest experimental noncommercial winemaking facility in the Pacific Northwest. WSU followed that up a few days later by announcing the hiring of one of the industry's leading academic experts as director of the viticulture and enology program.
Since 2000, when WSU implemented a horticulture degree with a specialty in viticulture and enology at its Tri-City campus in Richland, its emphasis has been on addressing the needs of growers and winemakers in the Pacific Northwest.
"Our grapes and growing conditions are different than those in areas with major research enology labs like California," said Robert Stevens, interim director of IAREC. "We need to be able to do the kind of research that serves the industry in the state of Washington."
To that end, WSU hired Thomas Henick-Kling, currently director of the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at Charles Sturt University in Australia, as director. Before working in Australia, Henick-Kling worked at Cornell University for 20 years, helping establish the school's enology and viticulture program and providing assistance to East Coast winemakers.
"Our program has long lacked a good leader," said Stevens. "We've got good researchers, but they are disbursed throughout a number of programs like horticulture, entomology, agricultural economics and food science. We needed a central individual coordinating staff and research efforts."
Construction of the new enology research lab is evidence of the university's desire to address the specific needs of the Washington wine industry. The facility will allow researchers to gather data and design experiments that are directly applicable to Washington's growers and winemakers.
"One of the criticisms of our facility has long been that our experimental batches of wine were so small as to be of little use to the industry," said Stevens. "We now have the capacity to do larger experiments on a scale that will make them more directly applicable to the wine industry in our area." Previously, experimental batches of wine were typically made in 5-gallon glass carboys.
Stevens said the facility, which contains 73 temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermentation tanks ranging in size from 26 to 260 gallons, will allow researchers to taste the results of fruit produced using new growing techniques, as well as wine made using new equipment and techniques.
"When we do an experiment in the field we need to carry it through in the winery," he said. "We're currently experimenting with the effects of different types of rootstock on some of our traditional grape varieties here in Washington. The wine lab experiments will allow us to see how the rootstocks affect flavor in wine."
Wines will be made under the direction of the center's winemakers, James Harbertson and Kerry Ringer, scientists from the WSU Department of Food Science. The two crushed the facility's first grapes earlier this month.
Wade Wolfe, co-owner of Thurston Wolfe winery in Prosser, said, "There has always been a small experimental lab at the center here in Prosser, but the reality was that it didn't allow for very controlled or sophisticated experiments. This new facility was designed to be an experimental winery with the correct kind of sealant on the walls, better lighting, electrical outlets, and small stainless-steel temperature-controlled fermentors. It's now big enough and sophisticated enough to be more representative of commercial lots of wine."
What will become of the wines produced in the new facility? According to authorities, Washington state law forbids the distribution of wine made in the research facility. The wines will eventually be poured down the drain.