Needed for Washington wines: better research

Other regions understand that you need world-class and localized research to support all those vineyards and winemakers. Now, there are signs we are figuring out how to "stay up with the big boys" in such wine-rich areas as California, Australia, and Europe.

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Ted Baseler and Bob Betz: a transformational moment for Washington wines.

Other regions understand that you need world-class and localized research to support all those vineyards and winemakers. Now, there are signs we are figuring out how to "stay up with the big boys" in such wine-rich areas as California, Australia, and Europe.

Snow-laden storm clouds hung in the skies over eastern Washington late last November, marking the end of a long, late, and lazy Indian summer in the state's agricultural heartland. The lack of frost was troubling in the Yakima Valley's apple orchards, where many varieties need at least one night of sub-freezing temperatures to "set" the color and acidity of the fruit.

But the real threat of the balmy autumn was below ground, in vineyards across the state: the vines didn't know it was almost winter. The roots of vitis vinifera, the plant whose rootstocks give birth, above ground, to all the "noble" wine grapes (from riesling and chardonnay to cabernet sauvignon and merlot) — those roots can survive Washington's freezing winters only if the ground changes temperature gradually, if the rootstock becomes slowly inured to the life-killing chill.

On the night of November 23, the Pacific Northwest was hit with a huge, vicious snowstorm. Temperatures, driven by fierce arctic winds, plunged well below zero and stayed below freezing for days. Here on the west side, we were inconvenienced (to say the least) by the early winter storm and amused by videos of skidding Metro buses; we paid eastern Washington little heed. And even on the farms, they couldn't be sure of the damage until spring.

As things turned out, the blanket of snow, which usually protects cover crops and rootstock alike, was of little help; the freeze had come too quickly. Many vines were killed outright, and many more didn't produce a full crop of grapes. Farming, by nature, is never exact, and the growing season's not over yet, but the extent of the crop loss, recognized only after bud break in early June, may be as high as 20 percent.

"That's our problem in eastern Washington, winter damage," says Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the region's largest vineyard owner and wine producer. "It's something they don't have to worry about in California."

The California reference is telling. The University of California at Davis is home to the nation's largest and most prestigious program to train aspiring wine makers. (Davis used to call its program Fermentation Science, which became known as "Budweiser U," churning out technicians for the beer industry. When the emphasis shifted to wine, the nickname changed to "Gallo U.”) The professors at Davis, over the years, have written the seminal texts on viticulture and enology. Never mind that they claimed, wrongly, that you couldn't grow wine grapes in Oregon or Washington, which they considered marginal territory at best.

There are now over 1,000 wineries in the Pacific Northwest, and more promising sites are being planted every year, even (some might say, especially) in British Columbia. Washington and Oregon wineries have made significant inroads on the international market, except for one crucial area: original research. Yes, Washington State University has a proud tradition of academic support for the wine industry. Dr. George Carter headed WSU's program in Pullman for decades (his son Geoff became a well-known Seattle newspaper man). The program is currently run by Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling (whom everyone calls THK), who was born in Austria, is a 20-year veteran at Cornell, and was recruited from a cushy post in Australia two years ago.

For example, THK has done groundbreaking work on yeast strains with studies that disprove the UC Davis notion that "commercial" strains produced in a lab are superior to native yeasts. (Many wineries are afraid to use "wild" yeasts to ferment their grapes, and prefer specifically bred commercial strains to ensure a full, rich fermentation of chardonnay, a low-temperature fermentation for sparkling wines, or a strain that will survive in the high alcohol environment of an overripe red wine.)

But THK's yeast work wasn't done at WSU; it was done in Australia. WSU's facilities in the Tri-Cities are literally falling apart: a WWII-vintage quonset hut and some outbuildings, hardly the stuff of a major university, let alone a wine region that fancies itself world class. (It's like driving a Ferrari around the track with bald tires, says one industry observer.)

Australia, with its isolated vineyards and the lack of an indigenous winemaking tradition, has long seen the need for its own, world-class research program. France has major academic programs based in Bordeaux, Dijon, and Montpelier. Germany's Geisenheim Research Station has a partnership with Britain's prestigious Masters of Wine. Spain and Italy also have research facilities, regional in nature.

Agriculture is very site specific (what you can grow depends to a great extent on where you grow it), and the results of agricultural research for one region don't necessarily have relevance thousands of miles away. Washington wine needs more good minds to work on Washington issues (like winter hardiness), and needs a facility with sufficient international standing to attract those minds to the Tri Cities rather than central California.

Earlier this month WSU launched a campaign to upgrade its Viticulture & Enology department's facilities, helped no doubt by the fact that the chairman of the university's board of regents is none other than Ste. Michelle's Ted Baseler.

Last week the Washington Wine Commission pledged $7.4 million toward the construction of a new Wine Science Center to be built in Richland. "We have to compete globally, and compete long-term," said Ryan Pennington, public relations director of the Washington Wine Commission, the industry's marketing arm. The money — about a third of the $20 million the center is expected to cost — will come from new assessments on members, with vineyards paying an additional $2 per ton for a total of $12 per ton of grapes, and wineries increasing their assessment by two cents per gallon, to eight cents.

That still leaves a big chunk to be funded, but Baseler doesn't sound worried. There's a Campaign for Wine to raise private money, since the project isn't officially part of WSU. "The commitment by the wine industry itself is transformational,” he told me last week. “We'll finally be in a position to have not just the faculty but the facility we need, not just for the next 5 years but the next 50."

Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards and chairman of the wine commission, agrees. "This critically important project....will be seen as a significant milestone in the evolution of our industry." The president of WSU, Elson Floyd, is also on board with the project, since it's going to be a world-renowned magnet for industry leaders (and the students who follow them).

Washington wine — with humble origins in backyard vineyards and garage wine making — has become a multi-billion-dollar big business. More than 40,000 acres are under vine; over 700 wineries and related production facilities; in-state, national and international distribution chains; wine tourism; payroll, payroll, payroll (15,000 direct jobs); and millions of dollars in federal, state, and local taxes. "The wine industry is a major economic force," says the mayor of Richland, John Fox.

Even so, another $15 million or so has yet to be raised before construction of the new Wine Science Center can begin. Right now, there's nothing but an empty field where the building will go, next to WSU's Tri-Cities campus between George Washington Way and the Columbia River in Richland.

Ironically, the project is not on WSU's official list of capital construction projects, so it cannot be built on WSU land or with WSU funds. Instead, 3.5 acres of land adjoining the campus will be donated by the Port of Benton, and the construction project itself will be undertaken by a new public development authority to be created by the City of Richland. When it's complete, the building will be turned over to WSU.

The Wine Science Center is unrelated to another project, the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser. Years in development, the Clore Center — named for the man regarded as the father of Washington wine — is focused on consumers, but it's also a WSU offshoot. Clore directed WSU's so-called IAREC station in Prosser (Irrigated Agricultural Research Extension Center) under the old "land-grant" model of higher education, designed to promote modern agriculture. The Clore Center has no research component; it's an interpretive center, and an ambitious one at that.

California, which grows 90 percent of America's grapes, trained many of Washington's wine makers, but they had much to “unlearn” when they got here. After all, it's only logical that California's publicly funded research and training benefit California's wine industry, and there's no question that Washington needs more and better research of its own. Bob Betz, who founded Betz Family Cellars after he left Ste. Michelle, calls it “another move to dance with the big boys.”

Looking forward to a center that can accommodate dozens of researchers, THK tells the TriCities Herald, "This is not just a dream with a showy building. The industry needs this."

For example, the ability of vines to survive in colder weather--something California's warm-weather professors said wasn't possible--has been demonstrated but not studied rigorously in eastern Washington. What are the specifics? How many days at what temperatures to harden the vines? Under what cellular conditions? For example, do vines need water after the harvest? How much? And when, exactly? That's the sort of research the new Wine Science Center can provide. "We can survive one winter like the last one," Baseler told me. "But not two in a row."

Meanwhile, the grapes continue to ripen under eastern Washington's cloudless skies. Two hours more daylight than California generate sweet fruit, while colder nights to preserve their bright acidity. That's the reason for the slogan, “Washington: The Perfect Climate for Wine.”

Dr. Clore had it figured out decades ago; as an iconoclastic agricultural scientist, he understood the basic “What?” behind great wine, that it has to be part of nature. What the new Wine Science Center will do is uncover more of the “Why?” more of the “How?”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).