New lab will boost Washington wine industry
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