New lab will boost Washington wine industry

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Improving on great wines is more art than science. Yet for a wine-producing state like Washington, where a relatively short growing season raises the cost of producing grapes, consistently raising quality is critical to global competitiveness.

What if you could identify the flavors and aromas considered desirable in Washington wines and then show vineyard managers and winemakers what to do to draw out those characteristics? It’s a relatively new science called “sensory analysis,” and applying that science is the mission of a $23 million Wine Science Center now being designed for Washington State University’s Richland campus.

Last spring, the state Legislature appropriated $5 million for the center, and the state’s wineries have committed an additional $7.4 million toward completing it. The new facility will be one of a handful in the world dedicated exclusively to the sensory analysis of wine.

Washington’s wine industry has benefited greatly from wine research at the University of California, Davis, where many of Washington’s top winemakers were educated. And in 2008, UC Davis, a pioneer in sensory analysis, with research dating back several decades, completed an entire building dedicated to sensory analysis studies.

To be competitive, Washington requires research institutions of its own that focus on developing distinctive wines coaxed from the state’s own climate and soil conditions. Scientists have to study viticulture and winemaking in the context of Washington’s temperatures, plant diseases, bacteria and irrigation practices, says Steve Warner, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission, an organization the represents the interests of the state wine industry. “It’s how we can do better with what we have,” he says.

While every wine region in the world is intent on improving its wines, it’s particularly important for Washington, where a short growing season and lower temperatures tend to result in smaller grape yields. “We can’t compete in the $5-a-bottle and lower basic wine market because it costs much more to produce wine here than in California’s Central Valley and the equivalent areas in Chile and Australia,” says Mike Veseth, international political economy professor at the University of Puget Sound and author of the 2011 book Wine Wars.

WSU enology professor Thomas Henick-Kling; Photo courtesy WSU

But where Washington vineyards yield less, they also produce flavors and aromas, including pepper and floral accents, and characteristics such as good texture and color that are perfect for premium wines, says Thomas Henick-Kling, professor of enology at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus, where the Wine Science Center will be situated.

An impressive infrastructure already exists to nurture the state’s wine industry. Central Washington University in Ellensburg has a four-year global wine studies program that teaches students the principles of making and marketing wine. Walla Walla and Yakima community colleges have two-year programs on the same subjects. South Seattle Community College offers courses on production, sales and marketing. WSU has the most extensive program, with 50 researchers and hundreds of students in two-year, four-year and graduate programs in viticulture and wine production at its Pullman, Richland and other campuses. What WSU doesn’t have is a full-fledged research center focused entirely on sensory science. Washington’s new facility will focusing exclusively on wine; the one at UC Davis covers a range of food and beverages.

Much of sensory analysis involves taking human judgments about taste and smell, often considered subjective, and rigorously identifying and categorizing them. Sensory researchers will typically gather 10 to 20 winemakers with palates sophisticated enough to distinguish specific aromas and tastes. For example, if clove is the ingredient being tested, Henick-Kling says, “You want the tasters to concentrate on how intense is the clove aroma.” Each taster sips three samples—two of the same mixture and a third with the experimental wine sample. In another test, they describe the tastes and smells and indicate the degree to which they are present. To make the results as accurate as possible, a good lab requires special lighting so tasters are not influenced by the color of the wine; special ventilation screens out extraneous odors.

“The sensory portion is an important part because we don’t have the instruments to do it any other way,” says Henick-Kling. The Wine Science Center will be in Richland, the middle of the wine region, because it will be easier to bring winemakers to the lab to participate in experiments and share results of the research.

Once researchers can control for particular flavors and aromas, they can experiment with changes in the winemaking process and vineyard management to increase a desired flavor or aroma.

The Wine Science Center will have offices, classrooms, a microbiology lab, a chemistry lab, a greenhouse and a small winery. A critical portion will be its 150 to 200 fermenters—50-gallon tubs—that will be installed to allow six to eight experiments to be conducted simultaneously. Each experiment uses multiple tubs, letting researchers change the chemical and wine batches one variable at a time.

The three-story Wine Science Center will be constructed in descending steps, a design that enables winemakers to employ an innovative process called “gravity flow.” Grapes move through the process from stem removal at the top, down into the fermentation vats and, finally, into oak barrels in the cellar without using pumps or other machinery. This gentle transfer reduces the chance that seeds and stems are macerated, releasing unwanted flavors into the wine. It also saves energy.

Construction of the $15 million research building is expected to begin early next year and be completed in two years, depending on how fast WSU can raise the additional money—about $8 million— required to equip the building. The center will also need to find a source for the roughly $3 million annual operating costs.

Henick-Kling is confident the necessary funds will be raised because of the growing size of the wine industry and its importance to the state economy. Today, Washington has close to 800 wineries, up from 163 in 2000, and employs 30,000 people. There are 350 vineyards with 44,000 acres currently under production, and capacity to add an additional 10,000 acres in the near term.

Washington’s wine sector has plenty of room to grow in global markets as well as at home, says Henick-Kling. “Today, of all wine consumed in Washington state, only about 30 percent is Washington wine. We should be at 70 percent. And there are still many places in the world you can’t find Washington wine.”

The Wine Research Center, he says, will change that by improving the industry’s competitiveness over the long term.