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Tuesday, Jul. 07, 2009

WSU Tri-Cities research, teaching center to focus on winemaking

A key element in the future of the Washington wine industry is being developed at the Tri-City campus of Washington State University.

Though it's still in the design phase, the new WSU Wine Science Center will be a state of the art research and teaching facility that will help meet the needs of the industry, said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of WSU's Viticulture & Enology Program.

Perched on the hillside bordering George Washington Way, the 25,000-square-foot building will feature classrooms, a variety of labs, an international wine library, a sensory tasting facility, an experimental teaching winery and offices, according to information from WSU.

Students will get hands-on learning experience with the winemaking process from grape to bottle, Henick-Kling said.

And top-notch research space will support the growing industry, he added.

"It supports the research side that's already in Prosser, but it builds up research capability here too," he said. "I think it's great that we can integrate research and teaching in one place."

Jeff Gordon, owner of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards in Pasco, said he's excited the next generation of grape growers and winemakers will be educated locally.

"We are living in one of the top 10 areas to grow wine grapes in the world. We've been borrowing all the education and research from other areas," he said. "It's going to be a first-class place. We're going to teach first-class students first-class techniques."

Though a price tag has yet to be determined, Henick-Kling estimated the rough cost at $10 million to $15 million, which he said will come from a combination of public and private money.

The school is looking for industry sponsorship, he said, and construction could start as soon as next year if funding is found.

While finding money is a vital part of getting the building off the ground, Gordon said WSU's program has lots of industry support.

"Where there's a will, there's a say," he said.

Even in a tough economy it's a necessary project, Henick-Kling said.

And it's one that's been in the plans for a while, said Vicky Carwein, chancellor of WSU Tri-Cities.

"This is something that has been a dream of ours for some time," she said. "These kinds of facilities are critical to students' learning."

The school had been waiting to hire a program director to lend vision to the project, Carwein said, which Henick-Kling has done.

"We're very excited about him, as well as what he's going to do for this program," she added.

Henick-Kling, a German native, began his role at WSU earlier this year, after 20 years at Cornell University in New York and a more recent post at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

He said this will be the third major research and education facility he's helped design.

"It's a research and teaching facility, but it's also a facility that welcomes the public," Henick-Kling said.

He described the building as having two main sections, one for research and one that will be open to the public. The public section likely will include a tasting room, a retail shop and the opportunity for visitors to see the winemaking process.

Location of the facility on a slope will allow students and researchers to take advantage of gravity to increase efficiency and save energy, he said.

The tri-level building will welcome grapes on the top floor. Once they're sorted and destemmed, they'll fall to the second level into a fermenter or a press. Juice can then be moved with a pump, Henick-Kling said.

Another benefit to the hillside location will be storage for tanks and materials that don't need windows, he said. Underground space can be used for storage and will take advantage of the constant temperature, he said.

"We also want to make the building as green as possible," Henick-Kling said.

"It's going to take a while to put together, but it's going to happen and it's just going to be a great addition to the Tri-Cities," Gordon said.