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New WSU Wine Science Center to open next year at Richland; wide desks for wine-tasting glasses

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RICHLAND, Washington — Finding a way to get wine grape vines to cope better with low and high temperatures is one of the many things researchers hope to discover when research and classes start next year Washington State University's Wine Science Center.

Officials expect construction to finish on the center in Richland in the next two months, and some professors will move in at the beginning of the year.

But it will take some time to move in all the equipment and get the labs ready for researchers and students, said Gary Ballew, volunteer executive director for the Wine Science Center Development Authority.

That means students might not start taking classes there until fall 2015. The university plans to hold a grand opening in March.

WSU still has about $2.7 million left to raise for the $23 million project to build and equip the center, said Casey Fox, WSU director of development for wine sciences.

Construction can finish and the building can open without the money being raised because WSU has guaranteed the project, Fox said. But the goal is to have the center paid for when it opens in the spring.

The center will add gravitas to WSU Tri-Cities, and it puts the Tri-Cities at the center of the state's wine industry.

Seattle might have Boeing, but the Tri-Cities has viticulture and enology, Ballew said.

The center allows the Tri-Cities to stake a claim in the wine industry and grow with that industry.

It's a nice addition to a community that has a strong history of technology and agriculture, he said.

Four years ago, the Wine Science Center was an unfunded concept. State winemakers and growers said it was a critical need, but the recession made the state budget ugly, and it seemed impossible to get money for WSU to build the center.

Then, the wine industry partnered with the university and the community, Ballew said. The Washington State Wine Commission provided $7.4 million to jump start the project, and numerous individual wineries and vineyards kicked in money. The 2012 Legislature also put in $5 million.

The Port of Benton provided land near the current branch campus off George Washington Way, and the city of Richland added administrative support.

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said the Wine Science Center will allow WSU Tri-Cities to do for the state's wineries and vineyards what the University of California, Davis, did for California's wine industry.

A research university is at the center of every major wine region, Ballew said.

"We are a major wine region internationally," he said.

Washington's wine industry contributed about $8.6 billion to the state's economy in 2011.

Since then, farmers have harvested larger, record-breaking crops, with this year's haul estimated at more than 230,000 tons, up 10 percent from last year.

Lydig Construction and ALSC Architects, both of Spokane, designed and built the 40,000-square foot facility.

Thomas Henick-Kling, WSU viticulture and enology program director, said they built the center with some room for the program to grow into the future because they chose to use a public development authority to build the center.

The development authority will dissolve early next year when WSU occupies the building.

The center has room for about seven faculty members, but will start out with four to five, Henick-Kling said.

They've also included offices that can be used by visiting faculty.

The Wine Science Center feels open. The central atrium, its curved walls reminiscent of a wine barrel, mostly is windows that allow visitors to look outside at the research vineyard that might one day reach five acres. Among the varieties workers already planted are Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

The newest Syrah vines, planted just this year, will help students learn about the training systems that can be used to form the canopy of grape vines, Henick-Kling said.

At the heart of the atrium is a room that will become a library for special Washington wines, featuring unopened bottles on the wall instead of books.

From the library and the atrium, large windows will let visitors look down into the fermentation floor of the two-story research winery at the core of the Wine Science Center.

Workers soon will install three grow chambers in a room on the bottom floor. Scientists will use the chambers to bring temperatures to as low as minus 30 degrees — where grape vines die — and to as high as 150 degrees.

WSU is a world leader in research on cold hardiness, Henick-Kling said. And while the WSU Pullman campus has grow chambers, he said demand from other programs is so high that it's almost impossible to get access to them.

Workers are installing piping from the ceiling that will connect to 192 fermentation tanks, each about 60 gallons. That will allow researchers and students to control each of the tanks in the winery.

They also will be able to take temperature and sugar readings of the fermenting grapes every 15 seconds, giving them the data to show when things start to go wrong, Henick-Kling said.

One wing of the building features a chemistry lab, a molecular biology/microbiology lab, a viticulture and plant pathology lab and a separate lab for high-tech instruments.

The other wing of the building is for teaching. A tiered lecture room will let students to easily see the front of the classroom. A ramp on one side also will make it easier for wine carts.

Henick-Kling said manufacturers made the desks extra wide to accommodate wine glasses and for students to take notes.

Henick-Kling said it will be the first time in 20 years of teaching that he will have a classroom designed for wine tasting.

He said he looks forward to having access to a dishwasher downstairs for the program's 600 wine glasses. Currently, he and his assistant haul tasting glasses home after classes to wash them.

"Everything is coming together nicely," he said.


Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com

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