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Sunday, Aug. 08, 2010

WSU Tri-Cities seeks $26M for wine center

RICHLAND -- Washington State University and state wine industry leaders are stepping up efforts to fund and construct a 21st century wine science center in the Tri-Cities to meet growing research and production demands.

A fundraising drive has started with the goal of raising up to 70 percent of the estimated $26.2 million cost to build and furnish a state of the art wine research and teaching facility on four acres of Port of Benton land adjacent to WSU Tri-Cities.

Ted Baseler, president and chief executive officer of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates -- which owns or contracts 60 percent of the grapes in Washington -- leads the committee of state wine industry leaders seeking to raise the money.

Project supporters also have approached the Richland City Council about creating a Public Development Authority to help funnel private and public money to the project.

WSU and state wine leaders say they see the creation of a PDA as the logical mechanism to oversee development of a 45,000-square-foot, world-class wine science center that would include a gravity-flow research and teaching winery, laboratories, classrooms and a teaching vineyard.

Public development authorities are quasi-governmental entities without taxing authority that can be created by cities or counties to oversee development and construction of a special project, said Gary Ballew, Richland's economic development manager.

Seattle's Pike Place Market and the Seattle Art Museum, for example, were developed and built through formation of a PDA.

Supporters say the wine science center would meet critical research needs of growers and winemakers, expand industry employment to 57,000 jobs in 10 years.

If growth goals for the industry are met, by 2020 winery revenues are projected to reach $1.3 billion, with $435 million generated in state and local taxes, according to the Washington Wine Commission.

"We need to build knowledge and technology for the 21st century," said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of WSU's viticulture and enology program. "We are using information now that we learned in the 1970s and 1980s, and we need to know what the next steps are."

Henick-Kling, regarded as one of the premier enologists in the world, has been involved with the design of two other wine research centers, including one in Australia.

Other premier wine-growing regions in the world have a premier research and teaching viticulture facility nearby. Examples are the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and other facilities at the University of California, Davis, that serve California's huge wine industry.

"If we want to be world-class and attract interest in our wines around the world, we need world-class facilities," said Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. "We need to measure if we are improving the wine. We can do a lot of good things, but if we are not improving the wine, what's the benefit of it?"

The economic stakes are enormous for the future of the state and industry in Washington, which trails only California nationally in wine production. In 2006, a study by MKF Research said the wine, grape and grape juice industry contributed $3 billion to the state's economy.

Figures supplied by the Washington Wine Commission show state winemakers exported 117,739 cases of wine in 2009, worth $7.3 million. By 2016, the commission forecasts total exports of 313,181 cases with a value of $19 million.

The export market is important because of the growth potential, particularly in China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and India, Baseler said.

And while Washington doesn't have the acreage to produce the quantity of wine that California does, the state's winemakers and growers can craft more premium wines.

"What we can do is compete with the best quality of California and become known as a region that produces a superior quality of wine," Baseler said.

To get there, Henick-Kling and winemakers and growers say the state needs the know-how generated by systematic research covering every stage of wine development, from planting to harvest.

Studies also could include disease and pest management, experimenting with sensors to measure plant growth, or constructing models to predict ripening and harvest dates, Henick-Kling said.

Characteristics of Washington's American Viticultural Areas, from the differences in soil chemistry to local climate, also would be studied to determine what makes each one unique. WSU researchers also will look at what grape varieties could be grown in various regions to create superior-tasting wines.

"The ultimate goal is understanding flavor development," Henick-Kling said. "We want to create wines that (consumers) will recognize as being from the state of Washington."

Rick Small, co-owner and winemaker at Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, said he learned winemaking by trial and error when he started 30 years ago, relying on textbooks and advice from others.

Today, though, there's little room for error if a winemaker wants to produce a unique wine, he said.

"We're kidding ourselves if we don't go into this without strong scientific fundamentals, and that's where the wine science center comes in," Small said.

"There's probably not a more important time for us to have a center like this for our industry and the state. The wine science center will help the industry in a broad sense become better, elevate itself and ensure we provide a premium product," he said.

WSU already has staff in place, with 36 research, teaching and extension faculty involved with grape production, juice and wine issues at Pullman, the Tri-Cities and the research and experiment station in Prosser. That's the second-largest faculty involved with viticulture and enology research in the nation after UC Davis, said Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

Bernardo said a timeline hasn't been established for the wine science center project, although Henick-Kling said he hopes the center could be completed by 2012. State wine industry leaders are anxious to see work begin.

"All we're trying to do is increase jobs, increase tax revenue and make people happy," Baseler said.