In the first of my recent articles on “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” of Washington wine, I outlined 10 things the Washington wine industry has done well. One embarrassing omission, which a number of people pointed out in comments and via email, was the state’s educational and research efforts. From the moment I saw the first message, this was an “Aww shit!” moment for me.
In my defense (I have none), it is perhaps the greatest tribute I could give to how far the state’s educational and research efforts have come that I took them so completely for granted. I should not have.
Washington has numerous educational programs, such as those at Washington State University, Walla Walla Community College, South Seattle College, Central Washington University, and Yakima Valley College. (Full disclosure, I am an adjunct instructor at Walla Walla Community College.) They have profoundly impacted the Washington wine industry. What I tell people – and I tell this story often – is that I see the impacts on my tasting table.
Twenty years ago, I would frequently see new wineries starting out without much experience. They would often make surprisingly good red wines. The white wines, however, would be anywhere from mediocre to dreadful.
Why? It takes a higher level of technical proficiency. It often takes some training.
Flash forward to today. It’s now common to see new wineries making high quality red and white wines right off the bat. These people are, almost inevitably, graduates of the state’s various educational programs.
When I talk with growers and winemakers, I consider having education at these programs a feather in their cap. I assume a level of knowledge and hands-on experience that will impact the grapes they grow and the wines that they make.
It’s hard to overstate what a sea change that is. People who have been in the industry a long time can explain it best. Mark McNeilly, founder of Mark Ryan Winery, talked about what it was like to make wine in Washington in the ‘90s in a 2022 interview.
“There were no winemaking schools in Washington state back in these early days,” McNeilly says. “There wasn’t a bookstore we could go to to find out about winemaking, so we really had to share our thoughts, share our information.”
Today, there are winemaking schools in Washington. People don’t just have to rely fully on shared experience and tribal knowledge.
Better still, people interested in enology and viticulture don’t need to go to the University of California, Davis or another program elsewhere around the country. They can go to any one of a number of programs right in Washington.
Over the years, graduates of these programs have been seeded throughout the Washington wine industry and beyond. A huge percentage of the people I talk to – viticulturalists, vineyard managers, enologists, cellar masters, and winemakers – are local graduates. The programs have also been around long enough that many of their graduates are now at very prominent places and positions.
Similarly, Washington’s research efforts have been instrumental in advancing grape growing and winemaking in the state. The Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center opening in 2015 was a game-changer for Washington. The state-of-the-art facility provides students with an excellent educational experience and allows for cutting-edge research. Washington produces a steady drumbeat of research that helps growers and winemakers make better decisions and ultimately better wine.
Things like this do not magically happen. They require an enormous amount of effort on the part of the industry as well as a large financial investment. They also take time to trickle down to people like me. Those investments have been made in Washington, and the industry is now reaping the benefits.
Bottom line, Washington’s efforts on education and research don’t just belong on a list of The Good. They belong on a list of The Great. Mea culpa.
This article has been updated.
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