During the past decade, the number of regional wineries has increased by 400 percent.
Washington state has blossomed into the second-largest premium wine producer in the U.S., closing in on California. During the past decade, the number of regional wineries has increased by 400 percent — and there’s no sign that the industry will be slowing down anytime soon.
“We can’t compete with the size or magnitude of California’s wine industry, so we’ve focused on a niche market of upper-tier wines,” says Vicky Scharlau, executive director, Washington Wine Growers. “We’ve done a great job of producing high-quality wines at a great value.”
Washington wines: Great value
The Washington State Wine Commission predicts that wine grape acreage statewide will increase from more than 56,000 acres in 2016 to more than 79,000 acres in 2023, and the cases of Washington state wine sold will continue to grow by 5 percent annually, from 13.13 million cases in 2016 to 18.4 million cases in 2023. This growth is due in part to the availability of relatively inexpensive land (compared with California and France) and the high quality of grapes grown in the sun-drenched, mineral-rich soil of Eastern Washington.
“Washington wines are a great value proposition,” says Ted Baseler, president and CEO, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest wine producer in the state, headquartered in Woodinville with vineyards in Eastern Washington. “People are realizing, more and more, that they can buy outstanding wines from Washington vineyards, particularly cabernet sauvignon, for much less than wines produced in California or parts of Europe known for great wines.”
Is Eastern Washington the new Napa Valley?
There are currently approximately 13,500 acres of grapes planted in the Yakima Valley American Viticulture Area, the oldest AVA in Washington, with a potential of 200,000 acres, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Over the next several decades, there could be thousands of wineries popping up in the Columbia Valley, Red Mountain and Yakima Valley AVAs.
In fact, winemakers from Napa are already buying land there because of the high cost of grapes in California and the lack of available land in Napa Valley in particular. This is good news for Washington’s economy as well as the state’s reputation as a wine country vacation destination.
While Eastern Washington currently isn’t as glitzy as Napa Valley, there’s a subtle beauty of changing colors and topography, particularly in the fall harvest season. A growing number of upscale wine-themed lodges and inns, as well as numerous quaint bed-and-breakfast inns, have popped up during the past five years.
“The future looks extremely bright, not just for the winemaking industry but also the tourism and service industry in Eastern Washington,” Baseler says. “The two industries fuel each other. The more people from across the country and around the world who see Eastern Washington wine country as a desirable vacation spot, the more familiar they’ll become with our wines — and, hopefully, keep buying them when they return home.”
While most of Washington’s grapes are grown east of the Cascade Mountains, the impact of the wine industry stretches statewide. Chateau Ste. Michelle, located in Woodinville, is already a destination winery. The summer concert series and newly renovated world-class Visitor Center attract more than 300,000 tourists annually from around the world.
Training the next generation of winemakers
The Viticulture & Enology Program at Washington State University is critical to the growth of the industry, providing cutting-edge research and training the next generation of vintners and grapes growers. During the last five years, the WSU program’s undergraduate enrollment and research funding have almost doubled. Research and education facilities have expanded with the construction of the Wine Science Center that opened in 2015 and the expansion and renovation of the V&E research facilities in Prosser at the WSU Extension.
“The growth of the industry has helped our research program expand over the years,” says Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, director, WSU Viticulture & Enology Program, “But, on the other hand, our research has provided know-how that drives quality and supports sustainability, key factors that have contributed to industry growth.”
Alumni of the WSU V&E program are already growing grapes and creating celebrated wines across the state.
“The Viticulture & Enology program gave me a solid understanding of what makes Washington wine special and distinctive, especially in regard to our climate and soils,” says K.D. Organ, assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. “Wine Microbiology had a great impact on me; it showed me not only how wine is a living thing, full of evolving microbes and chemical reactions, but also how to evaluate and diagnose wine based on chemical and sensory analysis. With changes in climate and variations within growing seasons, it will be imperative to use these skills to continue creating wines of excellence in the future.”