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Wine and science thrive in partnership

At the heart of the flourishing Washington wine industry is a fundamental relationship. And the simple truth of a great bottle of wine is also true of this relationship: it only gets better with age.

Washington’s land-grant university and its wine industry partnered up half a century ago in a landscape ripe with opportunity.

Hugging the Oregon border, the Washington state triad known as the Tri-Cities sits among steep, endless hills where the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers meet. The combination of long, sunny days, rich soil, and available water for irrigation has produced a large share of the state’s wine grapes since before the Prohibition era.

“The wine that was made way back when was mostly jug wine. Pretty raunchy stuff, actually,” says Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. “Not something you’d associate with the wine industry now.”

But in the 1960s, Dr. Walter Clore, a horticulturist working at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center in Prosser, worked with Dr. Charles Nagel, a microbiologist from the Napa Valley, to test which European wine grape varieties would grow best in the state—and where. This research changed the trajectory of Washington’s wine industry and forged an early bond between the university and the industry.

“When we started, there wasn’t a lot of information about growing wine grapes in the state of Washington—period. The only information was from WSU,” Corliss says. “Prior to the 1960s when people started to grow European wine grapes, there wasn’t any body of knowledge—no industry knowledge, no scholarly knowledge. It was just, well, where do you get your ag information? From WSU.”

Dr. Jim Harbertson sorts donated grapes that will be used for his research.

Dr. Jim Harbertson, a chemist, jokes about the days he made wine in buckets and garbage cans when he first joined WSU more than a decade ago. Now, he has a state-of-the-art research winery and laboratories, thanks to industry partners.

In December, Harbertson was one of three wine scientists recognized for shaping the wine industry in Wine Business Monthly’s 50 Top Leaders. His role in developing a way to measure wine’s astringency transformed winemakers’ ability to make decisions. Evaluating wine this way—measuring and using data—eliminates a lot of the subjectivity and errors that come along with the human palate.
This leads to a more precise, consistent product.

This is the type of difference that WSU science is making for growers and wine, and what industry partners are invested in.

“We’re a good size company but we’re still a company,” Corliss says. “Research would always be a secondary consideration for us. So, knowing this, we have to focus on our relationship with WSU.”

Ste. Michelle not only helps fund but also relies on WSU’s work. And scientists like Harbertson know that significant buy-in from the industry makes their research possible, forecasting major benefits for the industry. The relationship is symbiotic.

“Having these kinds of tools helps put us in a position of knowing what will happen—like a crystal ball—to help the industry make choices. Our research is driven by what they need to know,” Harbertson says.

“We’re not just solving low-level problems. We’re asking big questions. We want to move the bar.”

Research fuels growth

Diverse climates and soils, climate extremes, grape physiology, forest fires, pests, disease, and microbial populations: all these environmental elements inevitably influence the wine industry. These elements, and what effect they have on the wine, are under constant analysis at the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center in Richland and the Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser. There, the state’s wine industry has equal share in research and development. From which grapes to grow and when and how to pick them, to how a toasted barrel affects flavor, each step in the process that creates the experience of a glass of wine is given its due attention. The result is art informed by science.

In Washington, the second-largest wine-producing state in the country, production doubled in the last decade. WSU research has played a major role in this growth and that’s due in large part to partners like Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest producer in the state, who’ve contributed millions of dollars to fund research.

Dr. Tom Collins prepares the smoker for the first round of smoke taint trials.

“In industry research, the key is identifying what’s happening and taking steps to embrace or change it. It’s supposed

to lead to action,” says Tom Collins, an agricultural and environmental chemist at WSU. “At the Wine Science Center, our programs are academic, but the research has the same drive. Scientists here are racking their brains to empower our industry partners.”

Sitting behind his desk on a quiet, wintry morning at the end of the semester, a stack of uncorrected papers towering in front of him, Collins became a professor of wine science after 20 years in the California wine industry. While he’s quick to point out the gin cocktail that shares his name, admitting his interest in distilling spirits, wine comes first for Collins. And wine science—that’s his passion. Whether in the lab or in the field, Collins is looking for the kind of results that help growers and producers do their jobs even better.

This work started while earning his Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, where he studied wine chemistry and the sensory impact of oak barrels on wine.  His research helped explain what the coopering process is capable of doing for wine, how consistent the process is, and what flavor profile the varied degrees of toasting impact.

“The structure of the wine has a lot to do with the barrel, but there’s no industry standard when it comes to coopering,” Collins says.

As Collins researched this common tool of the winemaking trade, he used that knowledge to teach winemakers what to look for in a barrel and how it influences aroma and flavor. Collins still looks inside as many barrels as he can since joining the faculty at the Wine Science Center in 2015, but his research has shifted to the effect of smoke taint on wine, the sensory impact and how to reverse these effects.

Smoke hanging over fields, orchards, and vineyards, can taint crops in ways winemakers don’t yet fully understand. In 2012, WSU wine scientists warned that high concentrations of smoke taint compounds accumulate in the grapes’ skin and flesh, eventually showing up in the wine. Unfortunately, rather than imparting an appealing smokiness some winemakers aim for, the flavor of smoke taint is stale, smelling like an ashtray.

In an initial round of field experiments last summer, Collins exposed Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling vines to 18 hours of smoke, burning materials that would be common in an actual forest fire. During the fall, winemakers at the Wine Science Center made wine from the grapes and analyzed it to determine how smoke taint transfers from the fruit to the wine. In the coming months, a subsequent round of experiments will expose vines to smoke for two to three days. In the end, Collins will be able to address winemakers’ biggest question: “Once I have it in my wine, what should I do about it?”

Partnership, collaboration, experience

A group of interns work with WSU researchers to do canopy management at the research station in Prosser, Wash. Intern labor was donated by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates to support WSU’s research efforts.

With 50 years of experience behind them, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has learned what another 50 years of growth will look like. The company understands the importance of sharing research with other growers and producers.

When Ste. Michelle had trouble with climbing cutworms, a pest that infests grapevines and tree fruit, the company asked WSU for help. Doug Walsh, an entomologist at the IAREC, had the idea to use a common pesticide, but only spray the spot where the vine trunk and trellis meet the soil. Acting as a barrier, the localized spray method worked to keep the pest off the plants. Walsh’s work not only addressed Ste. Michelle’s problem but also quickly and completely altered how growers deal with cutworms industry-wide, saving millions of dollars and dramatically reducing chemical use.

Since Clore and Nagel began testing varieties in the ‘60s, wine science has continued in Prosser and, now, at the Wine Science Center at WSU Tri-Cities. Dedicated in 2015, the center established winemaking and research resources that match the ambitions of the WSU Viticulture and Enology Program. The center is an investment in the state’s wine research; it’s an investment in keeping pace with the growing industry, which now includes more than 900 wineries producing 16 million cases of wine produced by more than 350 growers cultivating nearly 60,000 acres of wine grapes.

“It just makes so much sense for us to cooperate with the university as much as we can in order to raise the bar in terms of the skills of grape growers in the state. Most of them are our own growers,” Corliss says.

Though Ste. Michelle doesn’t outsource all of its research and development to WSU, there came a point when the company made a conscious choice to work more openly and closely with the university, he says.

“There’s an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Corliss says.