Students, grapes converge at WSU Wine Science Center

By Erika Holmes, Viticulture & Enology

grapes-processed-80RICHLAND, Wash. – With classes underway, students and researchers have begun processing grapes for experiments on fruit maturity and irrigation at Washington State University’s new wine center.

Nine courses started Monday in the $23 million Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center located on the Tri-Cities campus. Students are studying winemaking, grape growing and other horticultural subjects.

“The Wine Science Center is coming to life with the addition of students and grapes,” said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the WSU viticulture and enology program (

Grape maturity, wine character

Researchers and students process grapes at the Wine Science Center.

Incoming grapes will be made into wines in the most technologically advanced research winery in the world. Four grape varietals harvested from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ vineyards will be used in two experiments, according to Jim Harbertson, associate professor of wine chemistry.

“In one, I’ll be running a maturity trial – meaning grapes will be harvested at three different times to allow them to accumulate varying concentrations of sugar, a measurement called brix,” he said.

“Cabernet sauvignon grapes from the Mattawa area and syrah grapes from Paterson will or already have been harvested at 20, 24 and 28 brix,” he said. “The color and tannin balance in the resulting wines will be compared to understand how grape maturity changes a wine’s character.”

White wines and irrigation

Markus Keller, professor of viticulture, and postdoctoral scientist Yun Zhang are conducting a deficit irrigation trial with chardonnay and riesling grapes grown in the Paterson area. In collaboration with Harbertson and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, they are looking at the effects of varied timing and quantities of water on fruit quality and yield, and the impact on wine flavor.

grapes-processed-horiz“This project will help the wine industry better schedule vineyard water supply and understand the effects of deficit irrigation on white wine,” said Keller. “Many studies have been done on reduced watering of red grapes, but white grapes have been somewhat neglected and may sometimes be under-irrigated.

“We also need to prepare for the potential of continued drought conditions in future growing seasons,” he said. “At the same time, we can explore wine flavors modified by irrigation practices to find preferred flavor profiles.”

Public and private support

The Wine Science Center has research and laboratory space as well as experimental winemaking facilities. It provides classrooms to train the technical personnel that the expanding wine industry in Washington and beyond requires.

“We are excited to serve the Washington wine industry that in return supports the center through the Washington State Wine Commission’s assessment,” said Henick-Kling. “And we are also extremely grateful for the public funding sources and private donors who recognized the importance of this facility to the success of the industry.”

The fermentation system, donated by Cypress Semiconductor Corporation (, is a series of racks of eight 211-liter (52-gallon) stainless-steel wine vessels with individual control and monitoring units. Spokane Industries ( custom made the 192 wine vessels.

Private support accounted for $15.3 million of the center’s building fund while $7.71 million came from public funding sources. These include the State of Washington, Port of Benton, City of Richland and the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The Wine Science Center Public Development Authority included public and private industry leaders who advised WSU throughout the process.

View photos of grape processing at the WSU Wine Science Center at


Erika Holmes, WSU viticulture and enology communications, 509-372-7223,