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Thursday, Feb. 09, 2012

Washington's largest wine company, Ste. Michelle, pledges $1M for Richland wine center

KENNEWICK — Washington's largest wine company has pledged an additional $1 million to the Wine Science Center in Richland.

Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, made the announcement Wednesday at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention at the Three Rivers Convention center in Kennewick.

The Wine Science Center is to be built on Port of Benton land on George Washington Way next to Washington State University Tri-Cities. The construction will be directed by the city of Richland through a public development authority. Once the $23.25 million project is completed, the facility and land will be handed over to WSU and become the focal point of the university's viticulture and enology program.

Baseler, a 1976 WSU graduate, is chairman of the fundraising campaign for the Wine Science Center and was instrumental in the wine industry putting up $7.4 million last spring. The industry contribution comes from assessments based on tons of grapes grown and gallons of wine produced.

Because Ste. Michelle makes more than 60 percent of the state's wine, Baseler's company already is contributing the most.

He said the fundraising now has reached $10 million and probably needs at least $4 million more before construction begins, which Baseler hopes will start next year.

"Our push to make this happen is really parallel to the need of the industry," Baseler said. "We want to prevent any kind of catastrophe that might befall our vineyards, so we need to get this up and running. We also need to take advantage of this center to make better wines."

WSU President Elson Floyd followed Baseler to the podium to thank the grape growers for their commitment to research and education at WSU, whose funding from the state has been cut 52 percent in the past four years.

"That's a daunting number," he said. "If we are to get out of this economic circumstance in which we find ourselves, we must invest in the intellectual brainpower associated with the state of Washington."

Floyd said leaders in Olympia tend to focus on aviation and high-tech as economic drivers.

"The reality, though, is that our farmers, our ranchers and our growers are the lifeblood of this economy," he said, pointing out that the wine industry contributes more than $3 billion to Washington's bottom line. "I want to thank you for your investment in research and scholarship by committing $7.4 million."

He pointed out that as recently as a decade ago, WSU did not offer an undergraduate degree in viticulture and enology. Today, about 50 students are enrolled in the undergraduate program, 120 students are in a two-year certificate program and 35 graduate students are working with researchers in Richland, Prosser and Pullman. And WSU now has more than 30 faculty members who focus on wine-related research and education.

Floyd said the Wine Science Center will not only be important to the Tri-Cities and the state wine industry, but it also will have a global reach. Baseler agreed that the facility will help propel Washington onto the global wine stage.

"This will be a great centerpiece for our industry," Baseler said. "It has been a passion of mine for almost 30 years to help our industry get to world-class status. This is probably the cornerstone piece that is missing. When we get there, we'll be on the world stage. We just need to close that gap in funding."