RICHLAND — Fifty years ago, when Washington State University chemist George Carter began experimenting with making wine out of Washington-grown grapes, he employed a couple of garbage buckets to do the fermentation.
The well-known story of that humble beginning was very much on James Harbertson’s mind this September as the enology professor stood amid 192 stainless-steel fermenters. Fitted with neoprene jackets and monitors that take precise measurements at 15-second intervals — data that is transmitted wirelessly to a computer.
With its new, $23 million wine science center in the Tri-Cities, WSU now runs what it calls one of the most advanced experimental winemaking facilities in the world.
“It’s a game-changer for the Washington wine industry,” said Ted Baseler, a WSU regent and president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “It really will bring the kind of science into the industry that we’ve needed for quite some time.”
Fall 2015 was the inaugural winemaking year for the new center on the outskirts of Richland. Along with the stainless-steel fermenters, the facility has a stainless-steel shaking table, a destemmer and crusher, and a lab with equipment that includes two types of microscopes and a mass spectrometer.
“We’re getting to use all this crazy, cool new equipment,” said Harbertson, as he helped feed merlot grapes through the gleaming equipment.
On this day in late September, the wine science center received 8.4 tons of merlot grapes, donated by Klipsun Vineyard of Red Mountain, near Benton City. It’s one of the top 25 vineyards in the world, according to Wine & Spirits magazine.
These small, dark grapes, with their thick skins and abundance of seeds, would normally sell for $3,000 a ton — well over the $1,500 to $2,000 a ton that most wine grapes fetch. They’d be used to produce wine that would retail for $50 to $100 a bottle, Harbertson said.
But at the wine center these grapes are fodder for an experiment. Instead of being used to make high-end wine, they’re part of a test that will show how adjusting a wine’s acidity makes the finished product more or less drinkable.
With that kind of rich fruit involved, a commercial winery would be unlikely to run such an experiment. But here, Harbertson said, industry and the academic world can do research that ultimately will help improve the quality of wine produced in Washington.
The wine science center can make small batches of wine and test whether additions to the grapes helped or hurt the quality. It can also examine whether soil amendments, such as fertilizer, result in higher-quality wine — or whether wine is better when the soil is not fertilized at all.
“Always, we have to ask the question: Does it make a difference in the wine flavors?” said Thomas Henick-Kling, the center’s director.
Baseler, Ste. Michelle’s CEO, said the center’s researchers can also study aspects of grape-growing and climate that make Washington unique among wine-producing regions. For example, unlike other areas, state vines are not grafted onto another genus of rootstock.
Some experts say that makes Washington wine grapes more pure in flavor; however, it could also make them more vulnerable to viruses, Baseler said. An attack by a virus could be a calamity for the state’s wineries, he said.
The Washington Wine Commission gave almost a third of the money to construct the building, with additional funds coming from the state, U.S. Economic Development Administration, city of Richland and Port of Benton.
In designing the center, WSU got a helping hand from the University of California, Davis, a long-standing powerhouse in wine science. UC Davis has been studying and teaching about wine since 1935 after the repeal of Prohibition.
The wine science center is also designed to educate a new generation of enologists and viticulturists, jobs that are in strong demand, Henick-Kling said.
Baseler said most graduates of the program stay in Washington because there are good jobs here. Others leave the state, and sometimes even the country, going as far afield as Australia.
At WSU, viticulture and enology research began in the 1930s with graduate student Walter Clore, widely regarded as the father of Washington’s wine industry. By 1964, an industry group began funding viticulture and enology research at the university.
This year, the wine program has 90 undergraduates, and another 35 graduate students who research such areas as how different yeast strains affect quality, how to keep out bacteria that affect flavor, and how to control diseases that attack the vines.
In addition, about 120 students take classes through an online distance-learning program. The program also offers a two-year certificate. For many people already in the wine industry, studying online has been a good option, Henick-Kling said.
About half the students who seek a bachelor’s degree in enology and viticulture have family members who work in agriculture.
Enology and viticulture is a science degree, and students who major in the field are accepted into the program after fulfilling prerequisites in math, chemistry and microbiology, among other subjects. Selection is competitive.
Students can do all four years of the degree program in Pullman, or on the Tri-Cities campus. Many will study at both places, Henick-Kling said.
Harbertson praised Washington wine-industry leaders for coming together to study wine, rather than competing with one another. That’s different from California, he said, where wineries tend to be secretive and unwilling to share their research.
The center might still be on the drawing board if not for WSU’s late President Elson Floyd, who was instrumental in securing the funding for the building, Baseler said. Elson died in June.
At least for now, wine produced at the center isn’t sold commercially. The center doesn’t have to worry about taxes, regulations or paperwork, and professors and students can focus on research — including sensory evaluation and chemical analysis — Harbertson said.
Once the wine has been analyzed in the lab and taste-tested by experts, the leftovers go down the drain. Eventually, though, the facility is planning to get a license to sell some of what it produces to the bulk wine market.
And every year in the spring, enology students decide on what kind of wine to make. They produce it at a commercial winery, which gives them the experience of working in the industry. The results go on sale to the public at the WSU Connections stores, including the Seattle store in Rainier Square.