Andy Perdue

Bright times ahead for Washington wine

A century ago, William Bridgman planted grapevines in the Yakima Valley. He wanted to prove Eastern Washington’s climate could grow classic European grapes.

Some of those original vines are still alive and even producing wine.

A half-century after those first plantings, Bridgman sold the land to the founders of Associated Vintners. They planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1962, and those vines are producing some of the best wine in the state.

The lessons here are that not only can we learn from our history, but also that we have something to be proud of.

The Washington wine industry has reached a maturity point – both in the United States and on the world wine stage – that we don’t have to be ashamed of what is being accomplished. We are at a level of acreage and production that we are a player, a region that can no longer be ignored.

Because of our state’s climate and maturity, our winemakers are crafting some exciting wines that are sought around the world.

We have a regional power in Ste. Michelle Wine Estates that continues to carry the message of Washington wine to markets across the continent and around the globe. Just as it has done since the repeal of Prohibition, the company is introducing the magic of Washington wines to consumers every day, busting barriers that have been erected to keep emerging markets out.

Everyone on the East Coast might even know by now which side of the Potomac our vines are on now.

Instead of looking like the Wild West of winemaking, wine producers in California and beyond our looking our way as an opportunity. The most expensive vineyard land in Washington looks like a great bargain – and with plentiful water! – compared with places in Napa Valley.

Last fall, California crushed in excess of 4 million tons of grapes. Washington was a distant No. 2 in the country even with a record crop of 300,000 tons. But there is a subtle shift going on that is altering the balance of power in American wine production. Our tastes are changing to better wines. As a result, hundreds of acres of high-production vineyards are being pulled out in California's Central Valley and replanted to nut crops, particularly almonds. At the same time, Ste. Michelle is having its growers continue to add hundreds of acres each season as there are more retail pipelines to fill with delicious and inexpensive Washington wines.

The Horse Heaven Hills has increased its acreage to nearly 15,000 acres of vines, with Cabernet Sauvignon leading the way with nearly 6,700 acres of vines. The winemakers at Ste. Michelle love the Cab grapes they get from the Horse Heaven Hills – and they can't get enough of it. Almost all the new planting is being done on behalf of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Although not as dramatically, we are seeing similar growth on the Wahluke Slope. Anybody who has driven past Red Mountain recently will have noticed it is now nearly covered with vines.

Viticulturists are finding new places to plant. Last year, I toured a new 1,000-acre vineyard near the Yakima River that is destined to add 300,000 cases of new Washington wine, probably in the next three years.

Since the 2007 harvest a decade ago, the Washington wine industry has more than doubled in size. The folks at Ste. Michelle – the company driving the growth — believe it can double again in another decade. If their predictions of 200,000 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley hold true and California's industry continues to contract, there could be a subtle shift in power in the American wine industry.

There is lots of room, and water for new, well-managed growth.

Three decades ago, the vast majority of Washington wines were sold right here in the Pacific Northwest. Now the vast majority of our wine is sold outside of our region. That is a dramatic shift in the sales footprint. It's a good sign that the American consumer enjoys the value and quality of a $25 bottle of Washington Cab over a $100 bottle of North Bay wine.

So what’s in it for us? The unintended benefits of a maturing wine industry are vast. The state will attract more investment and, more importantly, more tourism. More tourism brings more jobs to wine country. More people will want to visit our winemaking regions, and happily spend their money in our communities. This will naturally raise our quality of life with better restaurants, lodging and other amenities. In that environment, entrepreneurs will thrive.

One peculiarity of the Washington wine industry is its in-market market share. For every 100 bottles of wine sold inside our state's borders, only 25 are made here. That is poor support for the home team. And that is something we can do something about. Instead of a bottle of red from Paso or Lodi, pick a bottle of Washington Syrah or Merlot instead.

It’s better for wine industry, it's better for our state's bottom line. And the wine will probably taste better, too.

This story was originally published March 13, 2017 12:00 AM.

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