The chilly wind, rain and cloudy skies at Thursday’s ground-breaking for the Wine Science Center near Washington State University Tri-Cities was less than ideal weather for ripening wine grapes.
But the mood was anything but gloomy as 200 people watched Gov. Jay Inslee and university and wine industry officials turn the first shovelfuls of dirt for the $23 million project.
When finished in 2015, the center is expected to push Washington’s wine industry, already worth billions of dollars, to new heights that will benefit the state, WSU and the Mid-Columbia.
“The people of the world are starting to understand the treasure we have here in the heart of Washington,” Inslee told the crowd.
The Washington wine industry has been on the global scene since the Yakima Valley was registered as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, in the early ‘80s, said WSU Regent Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and chair of the WSU Campaign for Wine.
Since then, the state has established 12 more AVAs and there are hundreds of wineries and vineyards across the state, prompting the need for local research and support of the industry.
“If we’re this good in 30 years, how great can we be in the future?” asked Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission.
WSU is the only university in the Pacific Northwest with a viticulture and enology program offering bachelor’s and graduate degrees.
Baseler said the wine science center will allow the Richland campus to do for the state’s wineries and vineyards what the University of California at Davis did for California’s wine industry.
WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor H. Keith Moo-Young and others highlighted the public-private partnership that brought the project to fruition.
The Port of Benton provided the land for the center at the corner of George Washington Way and University Drive. The university is handling construction and will oversee the research there. The city of Richland has provided administrative support.
The state wine commission provided $7.4 million — the seventh largest donation in WSU history, and many individual wineries and vineyards have made donations. Many others in the industry have donated, with $110,000 in recent contributions from four companies announced Thursday.
The new donors were Chris and Amy Figgins, Leonetti/Figgins Family Wines, $50,000; Rick and Darcy Small, Woodward Canyon, $25,000; Dave and Deb Hansen, Cougar Crest, $25,000 and Greg and Stacy Lill, DeLille Cellars, $10,000.
About $4 million is needed to finish construction and equip the facility before it opens in early 2015.
“It’s a realization of an industry dream,” David Forsyth, a winemaker with Zirkle Wine Co. of Prosser, told the Herald.
The nearly 40,000-square-foot building will have classrooms and faculty offices, as well as a wine library, conference rooms and research laboratories.
Thomas Henick-Kling, the university’s viticulture and enology program director, said the new space, will allow better development and evaluation of new wine grape varieties. It also means more students, vineyard managers and winery operators will be able to enroll in the program or participate in extension activities such as conferences and seminars.
“It’s a great program and now we’re adding the facility to match that,” Justin Blake, a WSU Tri-Cities sophomore in the viticulture and enology program, told the Herald.
Inslee said there’s still a lot of work to do.
More of the state’s schools need to focus education on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to support scientific research and jobs.
Transportation infrastructure projects, such as the proposed Red Mountain interchange on Interstate 82, need to be built to improve shipping and grow the wine tourism industry.
But he said Thursday was a great day and a sign of how partnerships can get things done. “We believe in wine and we believe in science. We are marrying those things today,” Inslee said.
Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver