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