Is Eastern Washington becoming the new Napa Valley?

Over the past thirty years, Washington’s wine industry has blossomed – hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms have popped up across the state. Washington wine is a fixture found at most fine grocery stores coast-to-coast. The state’s wine industry generates billions each year, creating jobs, attracting tourists, driving exports, and giving Washington a reputation as a world-class producer of premium wine. Wine is a valuable industry to Washington State, whose benefits spill over beyond beverage sales into tourism, food products, equipment sales, and other peripheral industries.

Geography Matters

The majority of Washington wine production takes place in the shrub-steppe eastern half of the state. The Cascade mountains create a rain shadow over the Columbia River Basin that only provides around 8 inches of rain per year, but snow packs that feed the Columbia River give Eastern Washington incredible water sources to rely on for wine irrigation in such a dry area. Eastern Washington receives incredibly long hours of sunlight, with 16 hours of sun per day during summer solstice, and 300 days of sun each year. Washington shares the same latitude of renowned wine regions in Northern Europe, giving the two regions similar solar angles and growing conditions. Growing grapevines requires precise control of water and sunlight, and the climate of Eastern Washington provides ideal growing conditions for the wine industry.

Although the majority of grape-growing occurs in Washington’s eastern half, the impact of the wine industry stretches far beyond Eastern Washington’s vineyards. The Woodinville based Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is the largest producer in the state, owning over a third of all vineyard acreage in Washington.

The recent droughts plaguing the western United States have actually created an unlikely surge in Washington wine production. Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency in May, but since growing wine grapes requires much less water than other crops, farmers are trading out their apple orchards for vineyards, increasing the amount of wine grown in Washington State. Wine grapes are hardly affected by droughts, allowing Washington’s wine industry to continue to expand, and even accelerate during water shortages.

The Science of Wine

There is more to winemaking than stomping in a bucket of grapes with one’s feet. The science of wine is known as oenology.

Modern day winemaking involves specialized fermentation systems that include data monitors, automatic pumps, and temperature control.  Winemakers can now track and record multiple fermentations at the same time by using wireless data transmissions that are sent to a central computer.

There is a whole world of wine science out there; specialized research labs for plant physiology, wine chemistry and microbiology, and even molecular biology of wine.

Washington State University in Richland is home to the new Ste. Michelle wine science center, which is considered one of the most technologically advanced oenology centers in the world.  The new research and teaching facility includes laboratories, classrooms, a winery, a two-acre vineyard, and greenhouses to train technical personnel.

By the Numbers

With a record harvest of 227,000 tons of wine produced in 2014, Washington is the 2nd largest premium wine producer (after California) in the United States. Washington’s wine industry is focused on the premium wine market, meaning wines sold for $8 and higher per bottle.

In 1981, Washington was home to only 19 wineries. Since then, that number has increased to a reported 850+ wineries in 2015, according to data provided by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. In the past decade the number of wineries increased by 400%, and the amount of acreage of wine grapes nearly tripled. Washington has thirteen federally defined American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The largest AVA is the Columbia Valley, with almost 11 million acres surrounding most of the other Washington AVAs and extending all the way into a small portion of northern Oregon.

Washington produces over 40 varieties of wine, the top red being Cabernet Sauvignon, and top white being Riesling. In the recent years, Washington State wine has been characterized by bright fruit flavors, crisp acidity, with undertones of tannin and oak.The ratio of red to white wine in Washington’s industry is 53% white to 47% red.

Western Washington is only home to one AVA, the Puget Sound AVA, but many wineries have tasting rooms or production facilities located in Western Washington. Some sell their products to urban wineries located in economic hubs in the western part of the state such as Seattle, Tacoma, Woodinville, or Olympia.

History Behind Washington Wine

Washington’s reputation has not always been one of world class wine production. Just 30 years ago, a trip to Walla Walla could mean either a weekend of wheat farming or a stay in the state penitentiary, not a vacation spent sipping on Chardonnay and Merlot.

The first Washington grapevines were planted in 1825 at Fort Vancouver by trade workers, although it is unclear if wine was ever produced from the grapes. Not much wine-related activity occurred again until 1860, when Italian and German immigrants began planting their wine grapes, producing varietals and developing irrigation systems.

The arrival of the Prohibition in 1920 hindered commercial wine establishments, but ironically played a role in generating early interest in home winemaking. Once Prohibition ended in 1933, the first certified winery in the Northwest was established on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island.

The origin of today’s wine industry in Washington traces back to a group of professors at the University of Washington who transformed their home winery into the first commercial operation focusing on the production of premium wines in the middle of the 20th century. The wine industry has continued to grow and expand ever since, with total wine sales bringing in more than 2.4 billion dollars annually by the beginning of the 21st century.

Wine Country

The wine industry has opened doors to a whole new stripe of tourism that takes visitors beyond Seattle’s well-known attractions and into the wine country of Eastern Washington.

Washington’s wineries appeal to tourists through a large variety of events, festivals, and getaways. The state receives 2.4 million total winery visits per year, representing a large share of tourism in the rural communities of Eastern Washington. Visiting a winery in Washington is an attractive alternative to Napa Valley’s well known destinations. Wine tourism revitalizes the economies of rural communities, as well as impacts the growth of wine brands and consumer direct wines sales.

Economic Pay-off

In a 2012 report from the Washington State Wine Commission, the wine industry created 27,455 jobs and $8.6 billion in Washington State, ($14.9 billion in the U.S).

Most wineries in Washington are small, family run businesses, yet the industry created full-time equivalent jobs in Washington State for almost 30,000 individuals and for more than 71,000 nationally. Generating wages of nearly $1.2 billion within the state and $2.8 billion nationally, one of the wine industry’s greatest benefits to the state is employment.

Industries such as viticulture are the future of Washington State. Wine production leverages the state’s natural assets, supported by cutting edge science, sophisticated food processing, shrewd marketing, and a system of old family farms and new entrants determined to put our state on the mental maps of wine lovers worldwide.