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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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Outlining the business of Washington wines

Special to The Seattle Times

Washington wine facts

Licensed wineries: 739

Vineyard acreage: 43,849

Crop size (tons): 160,000

Cases of wine produced: 11.2 million

Winery revenue: $1 billion

Wine-related visits (tourists): 2.4 million

Stonebridge Research

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I guess I'm a bit of a homer. I didn't grow up in Washington, only lived here about 8... MORE
The big question is why the Washington State wineries did not come up with a plan to... MORE
Robll, i totally agree with you and would like to hear more. In my opininon, the... MORE

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The best way to celebrate Washington State Wine Month is to enjoy a glass of your favorite vintage. I’ll uncork the velvety economics, hoping it’s not too dry, not too green, with nicely developed data tannins, ensuring a satisfying finish. I will set aside my volatile acidity.

Washington, the home of airplanes, software and international trade, boasts the second-largest wine production in the United States.

It’s a distant second behind California. For comparison, California produced 3.6 million tons of wine grapes in 2010 compared with Washington’s 160,000 tons. The Golden State corked 606 million gallons versus 25 million gallons here.

Still, it’s a significant achievement. New York, historically a wine powerhouse, produced 52,000 tons of wine grapes that year and Oregon 31,200 tons.

Almost every state makes wine, even Arizona (I wouldn’t recommend it). But for Washington, wine is no hobby. It’s a big and growing business, from the vineyards and wineries to wine tourism. Washington wines are also growing in prestige.

Although wine grapes were first planted by European immigrants in the early 19th century, any traction on building a serious wine sector here was quashed by Prohibition. But by the 1970s, some winemakers were ready to change things.

In 1981, the state had 19 wineries. In 1983, the Yakima Valley was the first area in the state to be certified by the federal government as an American Viticultural Area. A year later, the Walla Walla and Columbia valleys won this designation.

By 2011, that had grown to some 750 wineries and 11 certified-viticultural areas. While Woodinville is a big wine-tourism destination because of its proximity to Seattle, most of the industry lies east of the Cascades. The majority of the state’s grapes are grown in the Columbia Valley.

Like wine? This is your state. Washington vintners make more than 30 varietals, from riesling and chardonnay to merlot, syrah and, for fans of the movie “Sideways,” pinot noir.

According to a study last year by Stonebridge Research Group for the Washington State Wine Commission, the wine and grape industries have an economic impact of $8.9 billion within the state and $14.9 billion nationwide. Stonebridge studied the year 2009.

The wine-grape sector, unlike in California, is separate from the wineries in most cases. The state has more than 350 grape growers, many selling to multiple wineries.

This didn’t happen simply because Washington is a great place to grow wine grapes, although it is. Let’s inhale a little history.

Soon after the end of Prohibition, the Seattle-based National Wine Co. and Pommerelle Wine Co. opened and made fruit wines. The Legislature passed laws to protect them from competition and by 1955 1.2 million gallons of wine were produced from 7,500 acres of grapes. Most was sold in local grocery stores. They made no headlines with their quality.

In 1937, horticulturalist Walter Clore began work at a WSU research station near Prosser in Benton County, looking into the best places to grow vines and experimenting with grape varieties. One of his breakthroughs was showing that the high-quality Vitis Vinifera grapes could be grown in the Columbia Valley.

For this and other work, the Legislature in 2001 recognized him as “Father of the Washington Wine Industry.”

His work wasn’t lost on National and Pommerelle, which merged in 1954 as American Wine Growers. In 1967, the company brought in famed California winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who oversaw the development of a line of premium wines. They were called Ste. Michelle Vintners.

If this is starting to sound familiar, note also that in 1962, a group of friends, including University of Washington professors, formed Associated Vintners. In an oenology version of Hewlett-Packard, they made their first wines in Dr. Lloyd Woodburne’s garage in the Laurelhurst neighborhood in Seattle.

It stakes claim as the state’s first premium wine producer. Today you know it as the Columbia Winery. Columbia and Chateau Ste. Michelle were instrumental in giving the state a modern industry making some highly rated wines.

Even so, most wineries are small, family-owned businesses. So there was some trepidation when E. &J. Gallo Winery bought Columbia Winery and Covey Run Wine from Ascentia Wine Estates last year.

But this is not the maker of the cheap jug wine mom sampled when I was a child. Gallo is not only the nation’s largest winery, but it also makes many premium brands. Best of all for Washington, it has great reach.

“It's a good sign,” said Chris Stone of the Washington State Wine Commission. ”Ultimately, it means Washington should find more shelf space around the country as their powerful distribution and sales networks proudly promote their Washington wines. Any time you attract the attention and investment of people as successful as Gallo, it must mean you're doing something right.”

Indeed, gaining better national traction is the biggest challenge facing Washington wines. While they regularly win prestigious awards, getting shelf space is difficult. Washington has between 3 and 5 percent of the national market.

Given the fast growth and accomplishments of Washington’s winemakers, I predict the nation and the world are going to take notice.

Cheers.

Wine-grape crush
Wine-grape growers in Washington have more than doubled production since 2000.
200090,000 tons
2001100,000 tons
2002115,000 tons
2003112,000 tons
2004107,000 tons
2005110,000 tons
2006120,000 tons
2007127,000 tons
2008145,000 tons
2009156,000 tons
2010160,000 tons
2011142,000 tons
2012188,000 tons
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, Washington Field Office
Wine-grape crush
Wine-grape growers in Washington have more than doubled production since 2000.
200090,000 tons
2001100,000 tons
2002115,000 tons
2003112,000 tons
2004107,000 tons
2005110,000 tons
2006120,000 tons
2007127,000 tons
2008145,000 tons
2009156,000 tons
2010160,000 tons
2011142,000 tons
2012188,000 tons
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, Washington Field Office

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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