Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling tasted wines produced from Puget Sound appellation grapes during a visit to Washington State University’s Northwest Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon.
On the job only a few months, Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling already has big plans for Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program.
The Good Fruit Grower interviewed Henick-Kling in May to learn his initial impressions of the state’s wine industry and goals for the program. Since coming to Washington from Australia in early March, Henick-Kling has rarely been in his office at WSU’s Tri-Cities campus in Richland. He’s been busy traversing the state and meeting wine producers from every wine-producing region.
As director of the viticulture and enology program, he is responsible for research and education, but his role is really about communication and engagement, he said. “I see my role not only to communicate the university’s plans and programs out to industry, but also to get industry back involved with our students and extension programs.”
During his statewide travels, he found winemakers and growers who were open to new ideas and willing to share expertise and technical information. He praised the Washington wine industry for its interest in education and research. “They want to educate the best people, and they also understand that by being involved, they can be sure pertinent information is presented and they can see who some of the best students are.”
He points out that one of the strengths of the viticulture and enology program is its close proximity to Washington’s wine industry. The Richland campus is located in the heart of wine country, within an hour of the Walla Walla and Yakima valleys, Horse Heaven Hills, and Wahluke Slope, allowing easy access for student interaction with industry. “One hour to any place is a luxury,” he said, recalling six-hour, one-way trips he used to make from Cornell University to Long Island to pick up fruit and bring it back for research.
But in visiting those who are forging a path in new wine areas, like north central and western Washington, he observed a need for improved extension outreach. WSU President Floyd Elson is making rapid changes to reorganize Extension, but Henick-Kling still sees a need for county-based personnel to be more integrated and knowledgeable about viticulture and enology programs and research.
“We’re growing grapes everywhere in this state,” Henick-Kling said, adding that many tree fruit farmers have switched to wine grapes and need new information. “In many areas, there is a disconnect between industry and Extension. In some of the new wine-grape–growing areas, growers have a hard time finding information, and some haven’t seen anybody from Extension in two years. We need to upgrade and upscale information available at the county level so that local agents can help answer questions and diagnose vineyard problems.”
For instance, in western Washington’s Puget Sound region, there is expertise in winemaking but little experience on the vineyard side.
A majority of extension agents have horticultural backgrounds, he noted. “Growing grapes is not that different from tree fruit, and shares some of the same principles, such as light management and fruit exposure. Horticulturists already understand the importance of fruit quality, sugars, and acids.”
He believes that local agents can work with WSU’s enology specialists to better understand wine quality analysis.
Henick-Kling also sees a need for both large and small wine producers to stay abreast of new winemaking techniques and best practices through continued education. “Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Hogue Cellars, two of the state’s largest wine companies, have excellent winemakers and veteran technical staff. But it’s even hard for the big guys to keep up with new research and equipment.”
He believes WSU’s viticulture and enology certificate program is working well and that technical short courses, such as those being offered by WSU Extension enologists Drs. Jim Harbertson and Kerry Ringer this summer, are key continued education components.
Henick-Kling wants to develop formal collaboration with universities like Cornell and Michigan State University in the area of research and education. He notes that collaboration—exchanging lectures and extension courses and sharing in research projects—is a natural fit with Cornell because the two universities have similar programs, are similar in size, and a number of researchers already work together. “Our expertise complements each other,” he said.
Better collaboration is also needed with Oregon’s wine industry. He explains that the two industries are now sharing research priorities with each other to avoid duplication and the hiring of similar scientists.
At the state level, there is opportunity to encourage WSU researchers from different disciplines, crops, and research stations to work closer together.
“People are open and enthusiastic for collaboration, but there is still a lot of communication needed and work to make everything happen,” Henick-Kling said.
New this fall, through the school of business, WSU will offer a major in wine business management, providing students with the first of its kind degree in the state and perhaps the nation. Courses taken will teach undergraduates how to grow grapes and make wine, how to market and distribute wine, and the business aspects of running a winery.
Henick-Kling wants to go a step further and offer a wine business management master’s degree, much like an MBA. “The industry is asking for a wine MBA, but nobody in the United States is offering it. There’s a great opportunity for WSU to lead in this area.” He’d also like to develop an international wine master’s degree in collaboration with European countries and Australia.
He plans to revisit the viticulture and enology curriculum, based on feedback from alumni who asked for more flexibility in customizing areas of study and the addition of a multidisciplinary dimension. He emphasized that he is joining very talented professors and researchers at Washington State University.
While state budget woes are slowing down some plans for the viticulture and enology program, Henick-Kling said that recent budget cuts have not seriously impacted it. Immediate goals he is working on include expanding the teaching and research facilities at the Prosser research station and Tri-Cities campus; expanding the teaching vineyard at Tri-Cities to include trellis demonstration blocks that could also be used for research and extension courses; and building a teaching winery at Tri-Cities.