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Wine Sensory Lab Receives Funding

Facility at Okanagan College intended for professional tasting education

by Peter Mitham
Okanagan College sensory tasting lab
Keith Bevington, Sara Harker, Jonathan Rouse, Jim Hamilton, Harry McWatters and Alf Kempf (from left) toast the B.C. Wine Information Society’s $300,000 donation to help build a new sensory tasting lab at Okanagan College. Photo by Christine Ulmer/Okanagan College
Penticton, B.C.—A new sensory tasting lab at Okanagan College is expected to bolster research in British Columbia’s premier wine region and offer wine industry workers opportunities to hone their tasting skills.

This week the B.C. Wine Information Society donated $300,000 to back the new 15,000-square-foot facility, set to open in January 2014. The amount is the single-largest donation to the college’s wine-studies program and follows a $150,000 donation the society made to the college in 2010.

The gift is the result of proceeds from sales at the Penticton-based BC VQA Wine Information Centre, which the society operates. The site provides information about the industry and sells wine, which in turn generates cash for donations such as the new lab. This latest gift will cover approximately two-thirds of the cost of the new lab, priced at $480,000.

Sensory training invaluable for B.C. wine industry
Winemaker Sara Harker of Cawston, B.C.’s Rustic Roots Winery hopes to send her six staff members to the lab for training. “Right now there isn’t a lot of training out there on a sensory analysis perspective that teaches people where the smells and flavors come from and how to fix them,” she said. “From a wine industry perspective it’s very important, because the more that winemakers and sommeliers and servers and wine shop staff know about sensory analysis, the better they can represent the B.C. wine industry to its full potential.”

Harker, who graduated from Okanagan College with an enology certificate in 2008, said her own training in sensory analysis has been invaluable.

While she didn’t have access to the new lab, Harker did participate in a one-day sensory workshop with Dr. Margaret Cliff of the sensory evaluation lab at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, B.C. Harker was also picked to attend a three-day workshop for the B.C. VQA wine assessors, who identify faults in grape wines that exclude them from bearing the B.C. VQA mark (reserved for fault-free wines made entirely from B.C. grapes).

Harker has participated in the panel since 2007, and said the experience has been good for her, even though Rustic Roots focuses on fruit wines.

“It’s made me a better winemaker,” she said. “As you train your palate, your sensory threshold gets lower, and so you can detect things before other people. The lower the thresholds are for winemakers, the better the wine that will come out of the industry.”

Harker’s plans for her staff are in line with the vision Jonathan Rouse (Okanagan College’s director of wine, food and tourism) has for the new facility.

With the industry continuing to rack up accolades at home and abroad—this week, the Decanter World Wine Awards gave its top trophy to Mission Hill Family Estate’s 2011 Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir—Rouse said it’s important to continue to invest in education and training facilities.

“We want to make sure we have the right kind of facilities, the right kind of labs and the right kinds of opportunities for that next generation to acquire the skills (and) the knowledge to take this industry to grow it and make it strong, and this lab is part of that equation,” he said. “This now becomes part of that beacon in terms of attracting students and industry to the college to engage in wine studies.”

Full-time enrolment in Okanagan College’s wine program typically ranges between 18 and 22 students.

Lab will also feature a kitchen
The new lab includes a kitchen for analytical food and wine pairings. The kitchen also will facilitate industry training events in the space, unlike similar sensory facilities at the federal research station in Summerland or Brock University in St. Catharines Ontario.

Harker, whose family also operates a farm that supplies 30 restaurants in the Okanagan with produce, pointed out that the kitchen would help not just wineries but the region’s entire agri-food industry.

“It’s important to make that connection between wine and food, and how each can benefit each other,” she said. This “gives people the opportunity to see the interaction between food and wine.”

Elsewhere in the Northwest, work is progressing on the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser, Wash. The project is on track for completion later this year.

Meanwhile, in Richland, Wash., groundbreaking occurred last week on a $23 million Wine Science Center at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus. That project is set to complete in 2015.

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