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Record Harvest for Washington State

Some encourage vineyard buyers to also plan for wine production

by Peter Mitham
Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service
Prosser, Wash.—The numbers are in, and Washington state can now officially boast of what many predicted as grapes tumbled into the presses last fall: a record harvest, tipping the scales at 210,000 tons.

According to the preliminary Washington Wine Grape Release published by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Cabernet Sauvignon made a robust showing, posting 42,600 tons—ahead of Chardonnay and Riesling, at 40,500 and 40,200 tons, respectively. Together with Merlot (36,000 tons) and Syrah (15,300 tons), the top five varieties accounted for 83.1% of the 2013 harvest.

And, in perhaps an even greater testimony to the growth of Washington state grape production, production of the top five varieties alone was just 13,400 tons short of the 188,000 tons of all varieties harvested in 2012.

But when the cheering is over and new appellations such as the Rocks of Milton-Freewater (recently opened for comment) are approved, giving further definition to the place of production, the industry is faced with the challenge of handling what many expect to be even greater tonnage in years to come.

Cabernet Sauvignon’s lead has been attended by a hum of demurring voices that yes, Washington state has found a variety of its own. Indeed, plantings of the grape helped boost production 18.7% in 2013 as the harvest rose by 6,700 tons—the greatest tonnage gain of any variety in the state.

And there’s more to come.

Canvasback, the new Duckhorn venture on Red Mountain, will be using the property it purchased in December 2013 for Cabernet Sauvignon, and British Columbia’s Aquilini Group is also widely expected to use a portion of its 670 acres for Cabernet Sauvignon.

“That’s what the market wants,” observed veteran grower Dick Boushey, who advised Duckhorn on its purchase, in a December interview.

But with most varieties posting increasing tonnage—Gewürztraminer and Grenache Noir were the exceptions—questions exist around the state’s capacity to handle the steadily growing tonnages.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has partnered with Zirkle Wine Co. to boost its production, and smaller facilities like Artifex Wine Co. in Walla Walla, where Duckhorn is crafting the initial vintages of its Canvasback wines, and Charlie Hoppes’ facility in Richland (which largely serves Hoppes’ own Fidelitas Wines) also have little extra capacity.

“Somebody is going to have to build something,” Boushey remarked. “You can do a little bit of it in corners of wineries, but not large volumes.”

Zirkle Wine Co. in Prosser, whose primary contracts are for Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue Cellars, has acreage for expansion but it’s biding its time.

Its original facility was built in 2012 with a vision for processing 4 million gallons of wine. Its capacity right now is 2.4 million gallons. That equates to about 12,500 tons of grapes.

“The master site plan would allow us to be at least twice the size we are currently,” Dave Copeland, operations manager for Zirkle, told Wines & Vines. “We’ve laid the crush-pad out the same way—the press orientation, the receiving area is oversized, sized appropriately for a larger facility.”

But as for proceeding with an expansion, Copeland said Zirkle is pacing its own growth with that of Chateau Ste. Michelle, which he expects will become a larger client and edge out Hogue Cellars.

“We look good at the capacity we’re at,” Copeland said. “The next two to three years, we’re trying to get a better feel for what might be beyond that and what the opportunities might be for us.”

Given that Chateau Ste. Michelle is the state’s major buyer of grapes—and has even been turning to California producers for some tonnage—Copeland doesn’t feel the industry faces a major threat from increasing tonnage.

Growers who haven’t allocated their production are the industry’s greatest risk, he said. This underpins his belief that the state has room for facilities akin to Artifex Wine Co. and larger to serve small and medium-sized wineries.

“I would hope that there’s a strategy somewhere, three years ahead of that, as fruit goes in the ground, that there’s a crush pad being at least talked about,” Copeland said. “There’s definitely some opportunities there.”

Charlie Hoppes, who launched his Wine Boss facility in Richland in 2011, says his plant is at capacity with little room to expand. He’s limited by barrel storage capacity, which prevents him from taking in much more than 600 tons of fruit a year, though his equipment could handle an extra 200 tons.

He’s confident others will step in to serve the industry, however.

He points to Duckhorn, which intends to build its own facilit y, and expects that the Aquilini family will do the same when its proceeds with planting.

“I would expect them to build facilities for their own capacity, which will take a little bit of the pressure off,” he said. “It seems like the market will evolve.”

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