“Do you know what kind of wine this is?”
Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University Tri-Cities, asks me as he gently places his hand on a wall in the new Wine Science Center.
“Red?” I respond timidly as I quickly realize the limitations of my wine knowledge—especially in front of a leading researcher and professor of wine science.
He offers a small laugh. “It’s the perfect kind of red.”
The color of the red paneling on the walls of the Wine Science Center on the WSU Tri-Cities campus is an exact match of a “good red wine.” It’s not too orange or too brown, but a deep red.
The attention to details, down to the exact color of the building, is intentional and precise.
The Wine Science Center (WSC), scheduled for its grand opening on June 4, 2015, was “designed from scratch,” says Henick-Kling, and built with the users in mind: researchers, students, teachers, building maintenance, and other staff.
The resulting facility is unique—the WSC is a research and teaching winery. Not only does it address the needs of viticulture and enology researchers, teachers, and students, but it includes industry.
This merging of fields is the WSC’s “most valuable attribute,” notes Henick-Kling, as it “allows so many synergies.” The WSC brings together a wide range of disciplines in the field and fills a gap in research needs to keep the wine industry moving forward.
To do this, location is key. WSU Tri-Cities is an ideal place for the WSC and viticulture and enology program because of the region’s grape and wine industry. “Within one hour we can reach more than 80% of the grape production and wine production in the region,” says Henick-Kling. This encourages collaboration between researchers and industry partners, and it provides opportunities for student learning and research in commercial vineyards and wineries.
The dry and sunny climate, combined with cool nights, allows wine grape growers to carefully manage irrigation—the amount of water in vineyards affects grape yield and flavor development. Washington wines are distinct because of their strong fruit flavors, fine acidity, and dense tannins, explains Henick-Kling. Also, the dry climate reduces disease pressure—or likelihood for disease—in area vineyards.
When entering the WSC, visitors step into a bright, spacious entry room flanked with exposed gray block and red paneled walls, highlighted by natural sunlight streaming through the expansive windows and gently reflecting off a sealed concrete floor. The “rough to finish” architectural aesthetics parallel the winemaking process: The rough vines transform into a smooth, finished product.
This place is more than an entryway—it welcomes the public into a comfortable area to meet, mingle, and taste wine and allows for visibility and accessibility to all areas of the facility. WSC visitors tasting wine in the entry can peek into the fermentation room without setting down their glasses.
Directly west of the entryway is the WSC’s teaching wing. Designed specifically for viticulture and enology students, as well as wine business students, these classrooms boast perhaps the most carefully considered element, space. Like never before, classrooms have enough of it—tables are wide enough to hold trays of wine glasses, and walkways let students move around and carts travel between tables and chairs without any bumps.
Teaching technologies provide real-time links between classrooms, laboratories, conference rooms, WSU Pullman, and commercial wineries, thus allowing people to participate even when they are physically apart. A professor could guide a wine tasting teaching session at the WSC, and students in Pullman could participate. Professors can write directly on clean white walls covered with special paint while projecting images or video links on the same area.
Connected to the teaching wing are the state-of-the-art research areas. Beginning with microscopic materials, plant pathology and physiology researchers and students can move through the analytical chemistry instrument room, wet lab, media prep room, microbiology lab, and microscope room, all clean rooms. This leads to work with bigger materials in the dirty prep lab (think vines and soil), plant science lab, and insulated growth chamber, where plants undergo simulations of weather extremes using information from WSU’s AgWeatherNet. Finally, this room opens to the outdoor greenhouses and vineyards.
Following harvest, grapes move to the processing areas and then to the expansive fermentation room and research winery. The fermentation room—where grape juice becomes wine—has 192 fermenters (insulated 55-gallon drums) connected to hot and cold water lines. Probes inserted through the tops of each drum send data wirelessly to winemakers’ offices. These fermenters are “size representative,” meaning that fermentation can be replicated to scale, for example, in commercial wineries’ 20,000-gallon fermenters.
“It’s all about collecting good data,” emphasizes Henick-Kling. “We work openly with colleagues across the world to make great wine.” Colleagues include local wineries, as well as researchers from the University of California, Davis, another leading university research center in wine science.
Finally, WSC research wines move to the sensory testing room and gas chromatography olfactometry room, where they are tested for taste, smell, and color. With their carbon-filtered independent air system, soundproofed walls, and special lighting, these rooms are unique to the WSC.
When ready for consumption, the wine may be enjoyed outside in the WSC vineyards or native plant gardens, where the Columbia River slides slowly by the WSU Tri-Cities campus.
WSU helps provide for industry by training and developing workers, and in return, generous wine industry partners provide infrastructure and financial support. Integral partners to the WSC development include the Port of Benton—which donated the land where the WSC is located—the City of Richland, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, Washington State Grape Society, wine industry donors such as Hamilton Cellars, and the Washington State Wine Commission.
By the way, the red color featured in the Wine Science Center is a perfect red. In fact, Henick-Kling tells me, “It’s a three-year-old merlot—a mature red wine.”
It also happens to be crimson.
Gallery: Wine Science Center
Photos of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center by Zach Mazur