To rephrase the aptly named faux newscaster Ron Burgundy, the Washington wine business is “kind of a big deal.” The state is second only to California in premium wine production, defined as wines sold for $8 and higher. There are nearly 1,000 wineries in the state, 350 grape growers, 70 varieties produced in a ratio of 59% red to 40% white, and some 17.5 million cases sold annually, according to the Washington State Wine Commission. A new winery opens nearly every 30 days.
Move Over, Napa
Numerous factors have fueled growth in wine production, not the least of which are the state’s geography, climate and natural resources. By far, the majority of the state’s wine production is located in eastern Washington, where the rain shadow provided by the Cascade Mountains means a drier climate with longer periods of sunlight—nearly 17 hours a day in the summer—and consistent temperatures. Italian immigrants in the Walla Walla region fostered some of the earliest wine production, and two of the state’s biggest wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, had their origins in the area.
As with any crop production, water is a prime consideration, and Eastern Washington’s rivers—Snake, Walla Walla, Yakima and Columbia—provide a necessary source for irrigation, along with helping to keep temperatures moderate in winter, when freezing can damage the vines. The arid climate also reduces the likelihood of insect infestation, and the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures encourages both ripening of the grapes and also offers a period of rest for the vines that favorably affect acidity.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Early on, Washington wineries focused primarily on white wines, but the merlot craze of the 1990s (humorously and memorably disparaged by the lead character in the movie Sideways) brought an interest in red wines. Today, both red and white varieties can be found in the state. Of the 70 grape varieties grown, particular emphasis is on syrah, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and riesling.
In a 2008 interview with Brad Prescott of IntoWine, writer and well-known wine critic Paul Gregutt discussed the Pacific Northwest’s changing tastes.
“Red wines became more prominent on dinner tables, and Washington makes great red wines,” Gregutt said. “Among younger, more adventurous consumers, there is an appetite for exploring wines and wine regions outside the safe boundaries of Napa and Sonoma.” Furthermore, “Washington wines can stand right alongside California in terms of quality.” They are “every bit as good as California’s best, just different,” he said.
Production and Promotion
When asked in that 2008 interview what he thought the major hurdles were to Washington becoming a wine-producing “superpower,” Gregutt answered, “Simply availability.” One might also have added to that visibility. Apparently, the industry was paying attention. Wine grape production now encompasses more than 58,000 acres with a total economic impact of nearly $6 billion. That’s an increase of 18,000 acres since 2010. The most recent 2018 harvest yielded 261,000 tons, and the record harvest in 2016 was 272,000 tons.
There has also been an effort by larger wineries such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, along with Washington State Wine, to promote the state’s wine industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle, headquartered in Woodinville, encourages visits to the winery and its 105 wooded-acres grounds, and they also host a popular summer outdoor concert series from June to September that features renowned classical, rock, pop and jazz musicians.
Washington State Wine Commission is an agency established by the state legislature in 1987 whose mission is to “raise awareness and demand for Washington State wine through marketing and education while supporting viticulture and enology research to drive industry growth.” The organization represents every licensed winery and grower in the state and is funded primarily by the industry through assessments based on grape and wine sales.
If the growth of opportunities for education in wine science is any indication, the state and the industry are investing in Washington wine. An example is Washington State University’s $23 million Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center at the WSU Tri-Cities campus in Richland. This 40,000-square-foot teaching and research facility will focus on challenges specific to Washington such as improving vineyard and winery management, managing or eradicating grapevine viruses, and optimizing the flavor profiles of Washington wines.
However, challenges remain. For example, the Washington State Wine Commission has recognized that global warming, a trend that appears to be ongoing, may require growers to practice different canopy training methods and water management techniques, along with the possibility of exploring cooler growing sites, whether in latitude, altitude or aspect.
What is encouraging is that organizations such as the commission, along with growers and vintners, do have their eye on the future and how to keep the Washington wine business vital and expanding. That, in itself, is half the battle, and it bodes well for an industry that has been growing stronger with each passing year.
For more on the Washington State Wine Commission, visit WashingtonWine.org.
If you’re interested in trying some Washington wines, there are numerous opportunities locally. Here is a sampling of some wineries and tasting rooms:
The Grape Choice
Located on the waterfront in downtown Kirkland, The Grape Choice carries a wide selection of wines from all around the world and specializes in choices from the Northwest.
Maison DeLille Wine Lounge
DeLille Cellars is a boutique artisan winery located in Woodinville. Enjoy limited artisan wines from DeLille Cellars by the glass or by the bottle in the downtown Kirkland Wine Lounge.
The Melody Lynne Vineyard Tasting Room & Wine Bar
The Melody Lynne Vineyard in the Yakima River Canyon is brought to downtown Kirkland with a selection of wine, including pinot noir and chardonnay in the Burgundian tradition. Also offers garden-to-table flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Northwest Cellars produces and distributes quality, affordable wines with custom-designed labels. The tasting room is located at “The Alley” in North Kirkland.
Waving Tree Winery
Waving Tree Winery is a small award-winning, family-owned winery in Eastern Washington specializing in Italian and Rhone-style Washington Estate Grown Wines. The tasting room is at “The Alley” in North Kirkland.
Zero One Vintners
Zero One Vintners is focused on making a limited number of wines created in a distinctly unique and elegant style from the Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys, delivering exceptional quality for the price.
Brix Wine Café
Located in the heart of Kirkland’s Juanita Village, Brix is a comfortable neighborhood wine café perfect for any occasion.
VoVina Vodka and Wine Tasting Bar
VoVina offers a full menu of scratch appetizers, tapas, small plates and desserts, paired with specialty martinis, and wine, martini and spirits tastings.
WA Wine Quick Stats and Facts
National rank: Second largest premium wine producer in the U.S.
Number of wineries: 970-plus
Number of wine grape growers: 350-plus
Varieties produced: Nearly 70
Ratio of red to white: 59% red to 41% white
There are 14 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) recognized and defined by the U.S. Treasury Department
Wine production: Approx. 17.5 million cases
Wine grape acreage: 58,000-plus acres
Record harvest: 2016 with 272,000 tons
Most recent harvest: 2018 with 261,000 tons
Total economic impact: $6 billion
Average hours of summer sunlight: 16-plus hours per day, about 1 more hour than California's prime growing region
Annual rainfall: 6-8 inches in Eastern Washington, 35-38 inches in Western Washington
Top WA White Varietals
- Pinot gris
- Sauvignon blanc
- Chenin blanc
- Top WA Red Varietals
- Cabernet sauvignon
- Cabernet franc
- Petit verdot
- Pinot noir