Washington Wine: The Evolution of the Industry

Part Two of My Washington Wine History Series

The explosive growth of Washington wine production in the 1970’s can in part be credited to the extensive commitment to viticultural research led by Walter Clore. What happened from there included a pioneering spirit by Washington grape growers and winemakers, which created a sturdy foundation upon which the Washington wine industry was built.

In the 1970’s as scores of vineyards were being planted in Eastern Washington many of the growers were also establishing their wineries around or close to their vineyards in the Yakima, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Regions. Some winemakers however carefully considered the unmistakable advantage of building their businesses closer to Seattle and the Puget Sound. Leading the way of Western Washington Wineries was Chateau Ste. Michelle, previously known as Ste. Michelle Vintners until 1976 when the winery built a French style Chateau in Woodinville, WA and formally changed its name. It is also worth mentioning that Chateau Ste. Michelle released its first ice wine in 1978, making it among North America’s first producers of ice wine. Today Chateau Ste. Michelle is known as the Godmother of the Washington Wine Industry and it is the dominate winery in the state with approximately half of Washington’s planted acres of grapes going into Chateau Ste. Michelle Estate wines.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, WA

In the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, throughout Washington families were planting even more vineyards and laying the foundation for their wineries. A few of these wineries and other noteworthy events from this time frame included:

  • In 1977 Leonetti Cellars, owned by Gary Figgins, was bonded as Walla Walla Valley’s First commercial winery and their 1978 inaugural vintage Cabernet Sauvignon was named the best in the country by Winestate Wine & Spirits Buying Guide.
  • Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn founded Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery in 1977 and in 1982 it became the state’s 84th bonded winery.
  • Quilceda Creek was started by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin in 1978.
  • After planting their first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975, John Williams and Jim Holmes launched Kiona Vineyards in 1980.
  • After crafting wine at home and establishing a vineyard on his family land in Walla Walla, Rick Small and his wife Darcey Fugman-Small founded Woodward Canyon in 1981.
  • Washington State’s first vineyard designated wines were released in 1981, The Associated Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Willow Vineyard was one of three vineyard designated wines released that year. The other two vineyards included Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and Sagemoore Vineyard in the Columbia Valley.
  • 1982 was a big year for Washington wineries, it was the year that Mike Hogue launched Hogue Cellars, Covey Run opened along with two Spokane wineries, Harold and Marcia Mielke’s Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and Latah Creek Winery which was started by Mike and Ellena Conway.
  • In 1983 Jean and Baker Ferguson, start L’Ecole No. 41, Barnard Griffin began with Rob Griffin at the helm and Snoqualmie Vineyards opened it’s doors. Also in 1983 the wife and husband team of Kay Simon and Clay Mackey, founded Chinook Wines which was one of the pioneering wineries that established Prosser, Washington as a major wine-producing region in Washington state.
  • Started in 1987, Thurston Wolfe began making wine in the historic Old City Hall on North Front Street in Yakima.

Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, WA is established in 1988. You can read about my food and wine pairing experience at Seven Hills on a previous blog post.

The excitement of Washington Wines was continuing to rise as the first American Viticultural Area in Washington was approved in the Yakima Valley in 1983 and accolades for Washington Wines began to make news in the wine world. Washington Grapegrowers begins in 1984 and to serve the wine industry through advocacy and education. Following on the heels of the Yakima Valley AVA, both Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley AVAs received approval in 1984. The formation of the Washington State Wine Commission, a unified marketing and trade association happened in 1987. In 1988, Chateau Ste Michelle was named “Best American Winery” and in 1989 five Washington wines made Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 list” for the first time, they included;

  • #46-1988 Hogue Johannisberg Riesling Yakima Valley
  • #55-1986 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley
  • #73-1987 Kiona Chardonnay Yakima Valley Barrel Fermented
  • #86-1987 Latah Creek Merlot Washington Limited Bottling
  • #93-1986 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon Yakima Valley Otis Vineyard

Washington Wine Industry Rides the Merlot Craze

By 1993, Merlot had taken the crown for top red wine in the state, this reign lasted until 2006.

First, it was the popularity of Riesling that propelled Washington Wines, this was followed by Chenin Blanc as well as Muscat. Then as buttery Chardonnays were still a favorite in America, the Merlot craze of the 1990s, exploded and was fueled by 60 Minutes’ “The French Paradox”. Prior to this “Merlot Craze”, in 1990, 90% of all premium wines produced in California included varietals like White Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, White Grenache, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Following the 60 Minutes so-called “French Paradox” episode Merlot in particular proved to be very popular among consumers as consumption of red wine dramatically increased. The Washington Wine Commission made Merlot the marketing focus of the state, putting Washington in an excellent position to take advantage of the new craze. It was certainly a perfect year for Washington to push Merlot into the limelight as the 1990 Merlot Vintage was one of the warmest on record and produced exceptional rich ripe wines.

As Washington was riding the Merlot and red wine trend, more wineries were opening in the state and the Puget Sound AVA was established in 1995. Here is a glimpse of more events and winery opening during this time in Washington:

  • DeLille Cellars in 1992 was founded by Jay Soloff, Winemaker Chris Upchurch, and Charles and Greg Lill.
  • 1994 Canoe Ridge Vineyard winery officially opens in the historic Walla Walla trolley house.
  • Mid-January temperatures in 1996 rose to the mid-50s, then dropped as low as minus 18, resulting in widespread damage to more than 40 percent of Washington’s vines.
  • Taste Washington’s 1st annual month long celebration takes place in March 1996.
  • In 1997, after years of producing wines for others, Brian Carter created a small production of his own wine, “Solesce,” at the Apex winery where he was residing as winemaker and co-owner. Brian went on to start Brian Carter Cellars in 2006.
  • Reininger Winery opened in 1997 with a lineup of Bordeaux–style wines sourced from some of the Valley’s oldest vineyards: Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills.
  • Mark Ryan McNeilly launces Mark Ryan Winery in 1999.
  • The Washington Wine Quality Alliance (WWQA) was established in 1999 in an effort to develop and introduce standards for winemaking and labeling throughout the state.
  • In 1999, the Auction of Washington Wines was organized to honored industry leaders for their contributions to the Washington wine industry.
1998 was the year that Norm McKibben started Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla, with Mike Hogue as a silent partner.

Washington Wine Industry Continues Incredible Growth

In 2000 there were approximately 74 wineries in Washington State and by the end of 2009, this number had ballooned to around 386. Some highlights of those nine years;

  • Lake Chelan wine grape growing continues to see a steady increases in acreage, and the first winery was opened by the Kludt family in 2000, Lake Chelan Winery.
  • The Red Mountain AVA is established in 2001 and The Washington Wine Industry Foundation is started that same year.
  • The former CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle launched Long Shadows Vintners in 2002, creating partnerships with great winemakers from around the world.
  • In 2003, the Washington Wine Institute and its educational partners create new 2-year and 4-year degree programs supporting Washington’s growing wine industry.
  • 2004 records it’s 6th AVA with the addition of the Columbia Gorge AVA.
  • Horse Heaven Hills AVA is made an official AVA in 2005 and Seattle Magazine has it’s 1st Annual Washington Wine Awards.
  • Becoming the 8th Washington AVA, Rattlesnake Hills AVA was established in 2006.
  • Josh and Lisa Lawrence along with Josh’s dad John Lawrence and uncle Sandy Lawrence launch Gård Vintners in 2006
  • December 2007 – June 2009; The Great Recession proves that the Washington Wine Industry is not recession proof and many of the state’s grape growers and wineries feel the pinch during this period.
  • 2009 saw the addition of another AVA in Washington when Snipes Mountain AVA was established in January of that year.
  • The Lake Chelan AVA becomes the 10th AVA with it’s approval in April of 2009.
Lake Chelan, WA

Nine Washington Wines Made the Top 100 Wines in 2009 by Wine Spectator, including 5 in the top 50 and the coveted Number One Spot.

  • #1-2005 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon CV Reserve
  • #26-2006 Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard
  • #33-2006 Novelty Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2006
  • #36-2006 Efeste Syrah Red Mountain Ceidleigh
  • #38-2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet HHH Canoe Ridge Estate

In 2010 many Washington Wineries were still recovering after the Great Recession but despite the hardships the state’s wine industry continued to grow and in that year there was approximately 40,000 acres of vines planted, an increase of 28,900 acres since 1993.

Adapting to Change

Like other wine regions around the world climate and weather have been critical to the evolution of the vineyards in Washington and the last 10 years has proved that climate and weather can test a grape growers perseverance. In Washington, recent warmer spring and summer temperatures have led to even earlier harvests and the state has experienced early fall frosts before vines are fully dormant. These Heat and cold extremes that can damage grapevines and impact fruit and winemaking decisions have become annual topics of discussion in the wine and grape industry as members and students share research at conventions and symposiums.

One avenue for Climate Change discussions can be found at the Washington State University (WSU) where the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center opened in 2015. This world-class educational institution which is dedicated to the state’s wine and grape industries brings grape and wine industry professionals to WSU to share their research and professional perspective on many topics including climate trends, impacts of extreme weather, solutions for mitigating damage and available resources.

Where growth continues in the Washington Wine Industry, adaptation becomes a shifting focus and is further evidence of the enterprising ways that Washington is working at building and maintaining its current status as the 2nd largest wine producing state in the country.

Covid-19 Impact

COVID-19’s continuing toll on the wine industry is unquestionably substantial, with long-term consequences that will take years to recover from. As wineries closed their tasting room doors around the world Washington Wineries, like everywhere else, had to become more innovative and creative in finding ways to make up for their lose in sales. In 2020 Washington wine shipments plunged and the pandemic impacted the state’s large and small wineries in roughly equal measure. Despite the shipment decline, some wineries through strong local support, increased on-line sales and downright Washingtonian Spirit have weathered the storm relatively well, a few have even seen their sales grow as wine and other types of alcohol saw an increase in consumption over the last year. Still, continuing to support our local wineries and small business is as important now as it was at the beginning of the Covid Crisis.

Washington Wine Industry Today

The following statistics (as well as others noted in this post) are from Washington State Wine as of May 2020

  • Number of wineries: 1,000+
  • Number of wine grape growers: 400+
  • Varieties produced: 70+
  • Number of AVA’s: 16
  • Ratio of red to white: 59% red to 41% white
  • Annual wine production:
  • Approx. 17.7 million cases
  • Wine grape acreage: 60,000+ acres
  • Total Economic Impact: $8.4 Bill

The 2019 Washington State Wine Commission’s annual Grape Production Report stated that the king of Washington grapes was still Cabernet Sauvignon, with 53,740 tons. Coming in second was Chardonnay at 33,540 tons and rounding out the top five varieties was Riesling, Merlot and Syrah. These top five varieties account for 60% of the total production in Washington a number that has remained consistent over the last three years.

Through the year I will be highlighting each of the 16 Washington AVAs, but that number may change as three more potential new AVAs are under what is called “perfected petitions” and are awaiting approval by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Once the applications are approved, these new AVA names will start appearing on wine labels.

  • Goose Gap AVA– Located a few miles west of the Tri-Cities and it borders the Red Mountain AVA.
  • The Burn of the Columbia AVA-This AVA will carve out a section of the Columbia Valley AVA, claiming it as its own.
  • White Bluffs AVA-North of Pasco, This AVA would be nested entirely within the Columbia Valley AVA.

I hope that the last two blog posts have given you a better picture of the History of Washington Wine. This crash course wasn’t meant to be all inclusive, but was intended to share information and links that would provide you with a good starting point to continue your own exploration into this fascinating wine region.

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” Ernest Hemingway

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

One Comment on “Washington Wine: The Evolution of the Industry

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