Washington Wine Industry Grows

Record harvest boosts attendance at annual convention in Northwest

by Peter Mitham
washington wine
Kennewick, Wash.—This week’s annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) here is on track for record attendance, staying comfortably above the 1,000-person mark as the industry continues to grow.

The latest government figures show Washington State’s wine industry harvesting a record 160,000 tons in 2010, while figures from Wines and Vines’ own IndustryBase indicate the number of wineries in the state has grown to 647 today, up from 593 in April 2010.

The figures cast a bright light on an industry that’s been dogged by the shadows of a recession and other symptoms of hard times, even as its ascendance on the world stage has progressed.

While wineries shut last year as economic woes shook the industry, and one vineyard reported the theft of grapes (a mystery still unsolved, yet perhaps the most malicious sort of compliment one could receive), new entrants show that prospects for Washington’s wine industry remain strong.

Rising production is driven by a growth in red varieties—especially Cabernet Sauvignon, which grabbed ground from white varieties. Riesling tops the state’s production with 33,500 tons, according to National Agricultural Statistical Service figures, but Cabernet Sauvignon is close behind at 31,900 tons.

But more important to growers (and their bankers), prices rebounded in 2010 after a slump in 2009. While the average price per ton for all varieties hit $1,030 in the state during 2008, it dipped to $989 per ton in 2009 but hit a new high of $1,040 a ton last year.

That’s not to say the industry is without challenges, however.

A blast of cold November air that allowed ice wine production in neighboring British Columbia is thought to have damaged vines, though actual losses won’t be known till bud break this spring.

Any constraints on the grape production may lead to further rises in the price of grapes, a phenomenon Northwest Farm Credit Services notes in its recent report about the Northwest wine industry is combining with price-sensitive consumers to put pressure on wineries’ margins (see also Wines and Vines headline, “Oregon Wine Market Stabilizing”).

The pressure is evident in the shuffling of wineries and tasting rooms as well as the foreclosure in January of Whitman Cellars in Walla Walla. While other local wineries and tasting rooms opted to close in 2010, from Diageo’s Canoe Ridge Vineyard to Barbara Hetrick and Tim Sampson’s Yellow Hawk Cellars, most have avoided the indignity of foreclosure.

Rather, wineries have juggled the economic pressures by savvy pricing and local promotions. The Washington Wine Commission’s “World-Class Wine in Your Own Backyard” saw 2,400 consumers download its value pass (the initiative's key incentive tool), while the fight to allow corkage-free programs in various parts of the state is another venture that underscores the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of the Washington State industry.

Indeed, despite the changes, the actual make-up of the industry is virtually unchanged, according to Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the WAWGG.

“Composition has not changed in the industry nor has the composition of our attendees,” she told Wines and Vines last week, in the run-up to the WAWGG meeting.

Chances are the skills of those attending the show will be changing, however.

Today’s agenda includes a session promising “Instructive Hindsight” from 2010, while several sessions throughout the week focus on best management practices.

On Tuesday afternoon, growers got the low-down on getting paid, while on the morning session today will focus on winegrape and grapevine management.

But the future of the industry is always foremost, with Friday giving attendees tips on starting a career in the wine industry while established growers will mull whether or not to graft or replant vineyards in order to be competitive.

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