Washington State’s wine industry will receive a big windfall this year when the Auction of Washington Wines contributes nearly $250,000 for grape and wine-related research and education.

The donation was given to Washington State University for the viticulture and enology program. About $100,000 will be dedicated to research, with the Wine Advisory Committee guiding how the funds will be used.

The financial boost comes at perfect timing, says Advisory Committee member Dick Boushey, grape and tree fruit grower from Grandview. Veteran winemaker Brian Carter and Boushey cochair the standing committee of the Washington Wine Commission, which sets industry research priorities and approves funding of viticulture and enology research projects. Five grower and five winery representatives comprise the committee that was established in 1986.

Last year, through a combination of industry and state money, the committee approved $650,000 for viticulture and enology research for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Nineteen research projects were awarded some level of funding in 2012. But there wasn’t enough money for the research wish list, and several projects were unfunded or funding was reduced from the requested amount.

“The committee received nearly $170,000 more in project requests than we could fund,” Boushey said during the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting. He noted that it’s difficult to fund long-term projects like clonal research because of the limited funds.

The amount of research funds varies each year depending on crop size, state wine sales, and availability of state funds. For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the Advisory Committee had the following funds to commit to research (before the Auction of Washington Wines ­contribution):

•    $150,000 from grower-winery assessments (5 percent of industry assessments from the Washington Wine Commission is dedicated to research)
•    $225,000 from the Washington State wine tax (1/4 cent per liter)
•    $250,000 from WSU Agriculture Research (a WSU line item in the state budget for viticulture and enology research)

Research crossroads

“The biggest challenge in research funding is that federal sources are being cut or defunded,” Boushey said. Federal funds were important in establishing the Clean Plant Center-Northwest Grapes, formerly known as the Northwest Grape Foundation Service.

Many valuable programs supported by federal funds are threatened or have already disappeared, he said, pointing to lost or reduced funding for the ­Northwest Small Fruits Research Center, Viticulture Consortium West, and research partnerships with the Agricultural Research Service branch of the U.S. Department of ­Agriculture.

“Once you lose it, it’s always a bigger challenge to try to get that money back,” he said. “Much of the WSU research has been leveraged so researchers can go after federal funding. We have a strong team of 13 researchers at WSU, but they’re having a hard time finding research funding.”

Boushey says wine research is at a crossroads. Most of the $650,000 being spent in the coming year supports people—postdoctoral research associates, technicians, and the like. “If we can’t fully fund our research needs, we’ll start ­losing good researchers.”

The Auction of Washington Wines has sponsored an annual event to raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital since 1998. It has grown from 100 people attending the first year and raising $20,000 to more than 3,000 in attendance last year, raising more than $2.1 million.

Sherri Swingle, executive director of the auction, said that Seattle Children’s Hospital has been a partner since the start and is still a priority. But for the past 12 years, the auction has also contributed to wine education and research, to the total of $1.48 million. She added that in the late 2000s, the auction committed to fund an endowed chair of viticulture and enology at WSU. Funds for the $1.5 ­million chair came primarily from the auction but also from other events.

By consolidating industry fundraising events in 2012, the auction increased its funding to research this year, committing $250,000 to WSU’s Viticulture and ­Enology Program.

“The auction will contribute $158,000 to complete the endowed chair commitment, which now leaves us with funds to designate to other areas,” Swingle said.

“The auction’s board of directors understands there is a real need in research funds and wants to support new research ideas and provide support for projects that can be used to leverage additional grants and research dollars,” she explained. “Often, before researchers can go after those larger grants, an idea needs proving or seed money needs to exist. This is where these funds can help.”

Industry connection

Over the years, the auction has raised more than $28 million, of which $1.2 million has been directed towards wine education and research.

The auction has changed from what was once a black-tie affair held at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville to a series of events that kick off Memorial weekend and include regional winemaker dinners, a ­picnic and barrel auction, 5- and 10-kilometer runs, and more.

Swingle emphasized that increased involvement of the wine industry will ­generate more funds. “We want to rally more of the industry and help growers and vintners become aware of how they fit in and how they can benefit. If we can do this, ­everybody wins.”

A presentation of the funds will be made during the upcoming annual ­meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers on February 8 in ­Kennewick, Washington.

Dates for 2013 auction events are May 25 and August 15-17. To learn more about the auction, visit www.auctionofwashingtonwines.org.