RICHLAND, Wash. — Washington State University has raised $17 million to build the Wine Science Center in Richland and is on track to break ground in a year.
About 125 turned out on a blustery day at the site of the future wine research facility, including Gov. Chris Gregoire to ceremonially sign more than $5 million pledged this year by the Legislature.
As wind gusts blew over sparkling wine glasses and a speaker standard, Gregoire quipped that it was a bad hair day -- but a good day for the Washington wine industry.
The Wine Science Center will be built on Port of Benton land by the city of Richland using funds raised by WSU. Upon completion, the land and building will be handed over to WSU.
Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville and chairman of the Wine Science Center fundraising effort, was amazed by how quickly the funds have come in amid the crushing national economic downtown.
"In the beginning, people thought we were crazy to build this during such a tough time," he said.
Last year, the Washington Wine Commission pledged $7.4 million toward building the Wine Science Center, which not only will provide a place to educate the next generation of Washington winemakers, but also conduct research for winemakers and grape growers.
In February, WSU announced that the Wine Science Center had reached $10 million in funds. With the addition of $5 million from the state and $2.06 million announced Friday from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, wine industry leaders are looking forward to starting construction.
"This is terrific for the industry, great for the state of Washington and a steeple of excellence for Washington State University," said Baseler, a WSU regent and alum.
About $15.25 million is needed to build the facility, which will include a working winery. So far, $12.4 million has been raised for construction, and another $4.1 million has been designated for equipment.
The Port of Benton is providing $350,000 in land, and Terence L. Thornhill in Pasco has donated $150,000 worth of architectural and design services.
On Friday, Spokane Industries pledged to donate $600,000 worth of stainless steel tanks to the Wine Science Center.
Baseler would like another $4 million raised so construction can be completed in one phase rather than two. Diahann Howard, director of economic development for the Port of Benton, is confident that will happen.
"In the course of the next year, we should be able to complete that," she said. "When you've got a great project, good things happen and pieces come together quickly."
Howard said the Wine Science Center Development Authority, which is operated by the city, is ready to move into the design phase and would soon begin seeking construction bids.
The city is on track to break ground next fall, and construction is expected to take 12 months. WSU officials say it is conceivable that the Wine Science Center could be crushing its first grapes during the 2014 harvest.
Steve Warner, executive director for the Washington Wine Commission, said Friday's dedication ceremony demonstrates the maturity of an industry that is worth $8.6 billion annually to the state.
"It's an acknowledgment that we are a burgeoning regional wine industry and we are willing to make this investment in the future, to really cement our place in the global wine world as a place of superior quality wines."
Warner said having a research facility in Washington is vital.
"Washington is different from California and different from Burgundy," he said. "We have our own unique challenges in the areas of viticulture. It's imperative that we have this research done locally."
It's also important for the Tri-City economy. In Benton County alone, the wine industry is worth $1 billion a year and generates $43 million in state and local taxes, according to an economic impact study released in late April.
Benton County produces more wine than any other county in the state, thanks to large producers such as Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Paterson, Hogue Cellars in Prosser and Barnard Griffin in Richland. The wine industry is responsible for 27,000 jobs across the state and almost 5,200 in Benton County.
Grape grower Kent Waliser sees the Wine Science Center as vitally important to his business.
"It's a culmination of a lot of concerned industry people that we need more research in the state to grow better grapes and make better wine," he said.
Waliser, who manages Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco and is chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, said the partnership with WSU is good for everyone.
"The industry can't do this without a university, and the university can't grow its institution without a partnership with the wine industry," he said.