Interview with Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, Director of the Viticulture and Enology Program at Washington State University, Tri-Cities

 Great picture here of Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling during one of his lectures. Henick-Kling serves as the director of the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

Great picture here of Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling during one of his lectures. Henick-Kling serves as the director of the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling has a longstanding history in the wine industry, having previously worked in Australia, as well as the prestigious Cornell University. Henick-Kling worked at Cornell University for 20 years and played a pivotal role in the establishment of Cornell’s undergraduate program in enology and viticulture. His research has focused on the development of bacteria starter cultures for malolactic fermentation of wine. Based on his initial research and extension efforts, winemakers now recognize that the yeast strain they use has a major impact on the final wine flavor profile.

Henick-Kling has received many great awards, including the Wine Industry Research Award from the The New York Wine & Grape Foundation in 1994. The International Association of Enology, Winery Management and Wine Marketing made him an honorary life member in 2002. Henick-Kling has also been awarded three “best paper in enology” awards from the American Society for Enology & Viticulture, which also selected him as director of its Technical Projects Committee from 1999 to 2006. Henick-Kling was the first graduate student at the Australian Wine Research Institute at the University of Adelaide where he earned his Ph.D. degree. He earned his masters degree in microbiology and food science at Oregon State University. I recently had the chance to talk to him about his career and some of the wine developments in Washington State. Despite living all over the world, Henick-Kling carries a passion for Washington wine. Here is my interview with Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, Director of the Viticulture and Enology Program at Washington State University, Tri-Cities

WWB: Can you talk about the background of the program and how you became the director of this prestigious program?

THK: Our program has been around for a long time. We do research, extension and teaching for the wine industry. The research and extension support started in the 1930s. Dr. Walter Clore, was a horticulturist that experimented with grape growing here. He evaluated various sites in eastern Washington and then in 1960 he started collaborating with Dr. Chass Naegel. He was hired as a food microbiologist but he knew wine because he grew up in the Napa valley. His family made wine and their home was surrounded by vineyards and wineries. One of his friends were the Mondavis. He teamed up with Dr. Clore and they evaluated wine grapes together and educated some of the early grape growers and winemakers in the state. These were pioneers included people like Rick Small who started Woodward Canyon, and Brian Carter who back then was working for other wineries and later started Brian Carter Cellars [I believe his winery is now 25 years old). There was a tasting group in which they were evaluating their own wines and comparing them with wines from around the world. That was in the 1960s through the 1980s. We now have 30 faculty at WSU doing something in grapes and wine, doing research, teaching or extension.

Since 2004 we have offered a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology. Our program has had graduate students since the 1960s. We currently have about 30 students. We also we offer a two year certificate program that is online. Our students in the online program also get hands on practice either in the vineyard, the winery, and winery lab during weekend wine camps. Since last year we have our new wine science center which is changing things again. The Ste Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center is a great new, state of the art, research and teaching facility. It offers our undergraduate and graduate students a great space for learning in collaborative research projects in the winery and in our research labs as well as lots of interaction with industry more graduate students as well. This new facility also provides new possibilities for research that will greatly enhance our research capacity.

We have worked since the 1960s very closely with the wine industry and that is a unique partnership when you look around the United States. We have an active advisory committee which is now part of the Washington Wine Commission. The Wine Commission has a strong research commitment andcoordinates the industry advisory committee and research communication to the industry. Together we plan most of the vineyard and winery research projects. A majority of these projects is carried out in commercial vineyards. On the research side we have different funding sources, some from the wine industry and some from the state. Some is from federal money in research projects. For the money that is administrated with the Washington State Wine Commission we have a call for proposals which lists the areas that in most need to be a high priority. Researchers submit proposals and which then are reviewed and ranked by the industry committee. Ideally we fund all the really good ones. The final decision of what we do also of course depends on available funds. Overall this has been a wonderful process of planning, review and advice with the industry. Since much of our research is carried out in industry vineyards and sometimes wineries, when an industry collaborator sees new ideas that is working in the research project, this idea will be quickly integrated into an industry practice. This turns out to be a great way of bringing ideas into practice.

I have been doing wine research and wine education for quite a while. I started studying wine microbiology at Oregon State in 1979, and got my master’s degree in 1982. Then I went to Australia to study for my PhD at the Australian Wine Research Institute and the University of Adelaide. I then spent 20 years at Cornell as Assistant, the Associate and finally full Professor of enology doing wine research and education. In 2007 I went back to Australia and was the director of the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre, at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. This is one of the two viticulture and enology schools that in Australia. Wagga Wagga is in the large inland irrigated agriculture area in the Murrambidgee and Murray river valleys in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia in the inland area, a big fruit growing area. Then in 2008 I was offered this job here at Washington State and we moved back to the US. I have always loved the Northwest. It is a great place for wine and a wonderful place to live. I was happy to have the chance to come back to Washington and work with this industry that is so engaged and forward thinking, which makes it a wonderful place to work.

WWB: The wine business management program is intriguing. Can you talk more about the program and who the program is designed for?

THK: That program is run by the Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. The College has have a hospitality program that is well-known in the hospitality business. About the time that I came to WSU, they were talking about doing a wine business undergraduate degree and I thought that was fantastic because these a wine science program (Viticulture and Enology) and a wine business program goes hand in hand. About a year ago we established a minor in wine business so that our students in enology and viticulture can have add this expertise to their study program. At the same time we started to offer a minor in viticulture and enology that would complement the studies of the wine business majors. I think that makes this a very strong education package. To my knowledge, WSU is the only university in the US that offers these two undergraduate majors. We offer both degrees in the wine business and wine science in Pullman and the Tri-Cities. We now have the majority of the undergraduate students in Richland because of the additional employment and education opportunities for the students in the Tri-Cities. They can do internships and often have part time jobs in the wine industry either in the vineyard or winery, or in the retail side. Our graduates are soon responsible for big budgets and employees. As much as we can teach them in four years on the business side, the better. Of course, our degree is a bachelor’s of science and they we emphasize learn the basics of science along with it. Things change all the time. Our graduates must be able to keep up with and adapt to new situations. This means they need to keep reading publications of all levels. We work hard to be sure that our students have a good science foundation but a good practical and hands on education as well.

WWB: What are some of the challenges that grape growers face as temperatures in Eastern Washington continue to increase? How will this affect some of hotter growing sites? What kind of vineyard management techniques might help this?

THK: We currently experience heat spikes that last sometimes a whole week. That is too hot for the grape vines and we need to protect them and the fruit from overheating which will stop ripening and can even damage the leaves and fruit. For these heat events we need sometimes to start watering before the onset of the heat so there is water in the soil when the vines need it. We have to modify the canopy architecture so the fruit is not cooking in the sun. You will see more shade on the fruit and not the straight vertical shoot position which can over-exposure the fruit. We want to keep the grape vine functioning when it gets hot. We saw last year and the year before high pH and low acidity because of the warm days and warm nights. So adjusting the pH and acidity and also moderating the high sugar content is necessary. To do these adjustments if not all that easy. If we don’t get those under control then there is too much alcohol in the final wine, we have different microbiology during fermentation and a higher chance for spoilage. We are addressing these questions in vineyard research and winemaking trials.

What are some of the best tools to combat this? Ideally you don’t want to have the pH too high nor the sugar content. We are looking at how we can prevent this in the vineyard and what adjustments we can make in winemaking. We need to learn a few more things about how to correct this imbalance. We have dealt with this in years before but not as frequent as in the past few years. We should also look at earlier harvest. There are a few things that we can do in the vineyard but when it comes to new plantings growers are considering new areas of grape growing and also new varietals. We still have quite a few options. The Ancient Lakes area produces some great white wines and shows great potential additional varietals. In a cool year we have to pay close attention to ensure the fruit in our cool sites will ripen, in a hot year the fruit in these cool areas very easily reaches ripeness and great flavors. A big part of this is also education of the industry. Some of the vineyards that are coming out now were planted when Walter Clore was here and they are now at the end of the life cycle. This gives us the opportunity to reconsider which variety and which clone would be best suited in a particular site. We now have much more diverse plant material available that gives us more options for best site and cultivar matches.

WWB: What are some of the ways that your program best prepares those who are interested in owning or managing a vineyard?

THK: All the students do internships, and most do more than one. We don’t require it but we strongly recommend that someone does one viticulture and one enology. Then when they are studying they can do work studies. We added a new class called ‘Blended Learning’. In this class each spring the students discuss what kind of wines they would like to make and we pick some projects for the fall. We make several wines then in commercial wineries with the help of the students each fall. Some of the wines turn out really good and they will be bottled. Our wines are available at the WSU Connections stores and they are under the label ‘Blended Learning’. Each is a special project we do with the students.

In 2014 year we had a wine that was a comparison of Syrah grown on a head trained training system and Syrah grown on our standard vertically shoot positioned system. This was two blocks of Hedges vineyard that were monitored by the students through the ripening period. We fermented them separately and tried to keep the fermentations conditions all the same. The two wines turned out to taste very differently so we bottled them separately. In another trial we compared two different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, watched them ripen in the vineyard and then vinified them separately. In this program, the students get to learn in the vineyard and the winery as they are working on these projects. They work with the staff in the vineyards and in the wineries, not just the faculty in the classroom. That is important to me too, that they learn from everybody.

WWB: What is the potential for growing grapes in Western Washington in the future? What varietals might succeed in Western Washington?

THK: I see some very nice white wines coming from there. For red grapes the options are rather limited. There are a few sites where you can probably grow Pinot Noir and definitely places for Sparkling Wines and some other whites. Siegerrebe and Madeline Angevine are is making nice wines in many several places therein the Puget Sound area. I think there is also more potential for Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cayuga White, and Sauvignon Blanc as well, Pinot Noir for sparkling wine and in some years for red wine. I think the big limitation is availability and cost of land. The parcels tend to be small. With the hot and dry summers that we are experiencing you have to have the option of irrigation. Irrigation water might not be available. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for a long time and that is something that forces the plants to shut down so that you will have not have enough time to ripen. In Western Washington it is not a problem of becoming too hot, it is more a problem of not having enough days to ripen the fruit. Irrigating at critical times can help ensure full fruit maturity. That is something that would change for irrigation but we need to have that available and that is limited there as well. Besides white table wines, I think there is nice potential for super premium Sparkling wines for some of the sites there in Western Washington.