Wine grape growers gather for meeting in Kennewick

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 7, 2013 

Washington wine grape growers saw production climb by 32 percent in 2012 from the previous year.

Wade Wolfe, owner/winemaker of Prosser's Thurston Wolfe, told several hundred people Wednesday that most vines were back to normal yields last year after suffering frost damage during the 2011 harvest.

Wolfe was speaking at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meeting at Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center, which continues today and Friday.

Chris Stone, the Washington Wine Commission's vice president of marketing and communications, told the Herald that 2012 was just about "perfect" for grape growing. Farmers had ideal growing weather from bud break in spring all the way through harvest, and many added acreage.

Washington growers harvested about 188,000 tons of wine grapes in 2012, with red varieties leading white by 1,000 tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This is the first time Washington has seen red grape production exceed white varieties, Stone said. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah continued to be the state's top reds, while chardonnay and white riesling continue to be strong whites.

Washington saw record crops for the big four -- chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, Wolfe said.

Merlot saw the highest growth, up 58 percent from 2011 to 34,600 tons. Chardonnay and white riesling comprised almost 20 percent each of the total grape production in 2012. Cabernet sauvignon was 19 percent, while merlot contributed 18 percent and syrah represented 6 percent.

Washington's average price for wine grapes was similar to 2010, at $1,040 per ton, according to the USDA. In general, Stone said the wine market is seeing recovery for bottle prices above $20.

Wine sales continued to grow during the recession, although the pace was slower than average, he said.

"Washington is making such great wine that people just can't resist it," Stone said.

The privatization of liquor sales in Washington means there is more competition between wine and spirits for grocery store space and advertising, said Dan Ewer, senior vice president of wine for the Northwest for Young's Market Co. of Portland.

More central warehousing means that big chains are able to get more attractive prices, while smaller businesses pay higher prices, he said.

The average bottle of Washington wine was up by 35 cents in the past six months, Ewer said.

Washington only has been a part of the wine industry for 50 years, making it a baby compared with competitors in the rest of the world, Stone said.

"We are infants, but what is incredibly exciting about that is the quality that we are already producing in our infancy as a region," Stone said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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