On June 4, 2015, the Washington State University Wine Science Center celebrates its grand opening in Richland. A $23 million project spearheaded by the Washington Wine Commission -- and paid for by the state's wine industry, private donations, federal funding, and the state legislature -- the center is located on land donated by the Port of Benton. Within a few months, WSU students and faculty will occupy classrooms and laboratories in the 40,000-square-foot facility.
The Washington wine industry experienced spectacular growth in the early part of the twenty-first century. By 2013, when construction began on the Washington State University Wine Science Center, Washington wine sales totaled $1.5 billion, up from $1.07 billion in 2009. The state's 850 wineries produced 14.8 million cases of wine in 2013, a leap from 650 wineries and 10.8 million cases in 2009.
The center was conceived several years earlier, after a 2008 report commissioned by the state's wine industry "concluded that the existing WSU research and teaching facilities, scattered between Pullman, Tri-Cities, and Prosser, were 'inadequate to conduct the research needed by the industry for today and tomorrow.' But just as the concept for a world-class research and teaching center started to gain traction within the wine industry and WSU, the recession put a stop to such projects" ("Industry Celebrates ...").
The project regained momentum around 2011. Led by the Washington Wine Commission, the wine industry pledged $7.4 million from growers and wineries and helped cement partnerships between WSU, the Richland community, and the Port of Benton. Eventually the project cost $23 million, raised from industry contributions, private donors, and state and federal funds and grants. The state legislature budgeted $5 million for the facility in 2012. In 2015 Ted Baseler, then chief executive at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery and leader of the fundraising effort, said, "Virtually all the leaders of the wine and grape industry agreed there was an acute need for world class science, and people quickly rallied around the effort to build the center. Now, it seems even more important than ever" ("Industry Celebrates ...").
At the ground-breaking ceremony on September 26, 2013, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the first shovel. "Today, we’re celebrating a great marriage of two things we believe in in the state of Washington," Inslee said. "We believe in wine, and we believe in science. And with the marrying of those things here today, we're going to grow the Washington wine economy like nowhere else on the planet Earth in the next two decades. You can count on that. That's going to happen" ("WSU Breaks Ground ...").
Benton County was seen as an ideal site for wine research and education. Wrote wine journalist Eric Degerman in 2012:
"In Benton County, where the Wine Science Center is being built, the wine industry is home to large producers such as Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge facility, Hogue Cellars, Pacific Rim Winemakers, Hedges Family Estate, Barnard Griffin and Kiona Vineyards and Winery. It contributes $1 billion to the county’s economy annually and is responsible for 5,200 jobs and $43 million in state and local taxes" ("WSU Breaks Ground ...").
The center was constructed on land donated by the Port of Benton near the WSU-Tri Cities campus in Richland. Two Spokane firms -- ALSC Architects and Lydig Construction -- were selected to design and build it. The City of Richland oversaw the construction and financing before turning over the center to WSU for its grand opening on June 4, 2015.
Leading the teaching team at the new facility was Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, who was recruited in 2009 to run WSU's viticulture and enology program. Melissa Hansen, reporting on the grand opening, wrote:
"The facility provides space for the viticulture and enology program for educating future generations and will serve as a hub for researchers. It will be able to house about 60 faculty, staff, and students, according to Henick-Kling. But more importantly, it provides critical research space for the viticulture and enology program that was not available anywhere in the WSU system ... Now that he has additional room, Henick-Kling will soon have a new wine chemistry position filled, bringing the initial faculty number to six in the new building. There's room for one more faculty member and lots of space for visiting scientists, post doctorates, and graduate students" ("Industry Celebrates ...").
The grand-opening festivities included tours and speeches by various dignitaries. Baseler announced that Ste. Michelle was giving $500,000 to complete the fundraising effort. Elson Floyd, WSU president, then announced that the center would bear the name of the state's largest wine producer: "For more than 25 years, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has supported the WSU wine program with its own contributions as well as shepherding support from others. In recognition of its outstanding commitment and contributions, I am pleased to announce the center will be named the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center" ("WSU Wine Science Center Honors ...").
Wines poured during the celebration were made by students in Henick-Kling's "Blended Learning" winemaking class at WSU. "The wines, bottled under a Blended Learning label featuring the iconic WSU cougar logo, represent what the Wine Center at WSU Tri-Cities is all about -- blending student learning with faculty and researchers, alumni, winemakers, growers, and wine enthusiasts" ("Student Wines Toast ...").
Built for Learning
The 40,000-square-foot structure houses an atrium, faculty offices, conference rooms, and a wine library with storage for 1,800 bottles curated by the Washington Wine Commission. The educational and research features include:
Teaching Wing -- This part of the building houses a classroom that can accommodate 20 students, and a larger "sensory classroom" for wine tasting with tables to accommodate trays of glasses and students’ note-taking supplies.
Research Wing -- There are four laboratories here. The chemistry-instrument room features gas and liquid chromatographs, mass spectrometers, and spectrophotometers, including space for four operators. The chemistry laboratory has space for 16 people and contains high-tech equipment to analyze wine chemistry and four fume hoods to safely ventilate hazardous or toxic fumes, vapors, or dusts. The biology lab has space for 20 students to study microbiology and biochemistry. The viticulture lab has space for 12 students to work with plants and soil.
Research and Teaching Vineyard -- "Students and instructors conduct hands-on experiments and practice vineyard tasks on the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling wine grape varieties grown in the two-acre vineyard on nine different training systems" (wsu.edu).
Research and Teaching Winery -- The school's working winery includes "192 stainless-steel fermentation vessels, manufactured by Spokane Industries, [which] are individually temperature controlled, continuously monitor sugar concentration, and automatically mix wine on individual schedules. The fermentation vessels are connected by wireless monitoring systems that provide real-time data to a central computer, allowing the winemaker to track and record all fermentations simultaneously" (wsu.edu).
Indicator Garden -- An outdoor garden with 600 different featured plants, of which 80 percent are native to the Richland area, allowing for the study of climate, soil, plants, and insects.
In 2017, 13 research projects were in progress, ranging from "Smoke Taint of Grapes and Wine" to "Spray Application Technologies" and "Grapevine Leafroll and Red Blotch Diseases in Washington." The smoke-taint project gained international attention, according to WSU spokesperson Kaury Balcom. "We’re measuring the effect of wildfires (and smoke) on the vines, the fruit and in the wine. They built a hoophouse shelter for vines and hooked a Traeger smoker up to simulate smoke damage from wildfires," Balcom said. "We’ve seen wildfires increase like crazy over the past few years, not just in Washington state, but also in California and Australia’s wine grape growing regions. The research results could potentially help the industry worldwide" ("Wine Science Center a Boon ...").
Also impressed by the facility was Bob Betz, who had been immersed in Washington's wine industry since the early 1970s. "It's so exciting. The work that they are doing statewide at that center is really terrific," Betz said in 2021. "They're at the forefront of research for so many of the topics that are important today -- climate change, smoke taint, irrigation as water supply gets shorter and shorter. The work being done there is just fabulous. And their collaborators are in Australia, and UC Davis, and Cornell, and Europe, so it has taken this step beyond Washington state" (Betz interview).