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Friday, Jan. 29, 2010

Washington wine industry continues record growth

Washington's wine industry continues to grow at record levels.

Last fall, wineries crushed 165,000 tons of grapes, up 14 percent from 2008's record of 145,000 tons.

The two largest increases were in Riesling, which accounted for 35,000 tons, and Chardonnay, which reached 34,700 tons, a 24 percent increase over 2008.

Kevin Corliss, vineyard operations director for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said part of the increase is because a large amount of vines were planted three and four years ago and began bearing full crops last fall.

He also said the warmer-than-usual vintage also resulted in larger crops. For example, Chardonnay normally bears between four and five tons of grapes per acre but last year averaged 5.5 tons.

Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, thinks Chardonnay production will flatten in the future because the demand for the country's favorite wine has slowed, while Riesling has increased dramatically.

John Bookwalter, owner and winemaker for J Bookwalter in Richland and chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, isn't ready to count out the grape quite yet, though.

"America's love affair with Chardonnay is not over yet," he said with a laugh.

Washington is the No. 2 wine-producing state in the country, a distant second to California, which crushed 3.44 million tons of wine grapes last year.

New York is third with 44,000 tons crushed last fall, and Oregon is fourth with 37,000 tons.

Washington was the nation's largest producer of juice grapes, primarily Concords, crushing 205,000 tons last year, compared with New York's 84,900 tons.

Bookwalter thinks this year's wine grape crop could see another increase but agrees with Corliss and Scharlau that it is likely to level off a bit.

"What we're seeing here is acreage coming on line," Bookwalter said, "a reflection of what was planted two and three years ago."

Scharlau pointed out that Washington had 34,000 acres of fruit-bearing wine grapes last year and another 2,600 acres of young vines that will come into production in the next two years.

"Plantings are slowing," she said. "You can't have more grapes than tank space in the wineries."

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, whose wineries include Columbia Crest in Paterson, Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville and Snoqualmie Vineyards in Prosser, owns or contracts more than 60 percent of the grapes in Washington. Its flagship winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, is the world's largest producer of Riesling, a variety that also happens to be the nation's fastest growing in terms of sales, according to Nielsen ratings.

Corliss, based in Paterson, noted that Riesling tonnage nearly has doubled in the past five years and the interest in that variety has pushed plantings.

Red varieties also have increased, though more slowly.

Cabernet Sauvignon remains the No. 1 red variety with 28,500 tons crushed last fall, up from 26,100 tons in 2008. Merlot increased 1,300 tons to 26,700 in 2009, and syrah increased modestly to 11,000 tons.

Corliss said he thinks red varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, will continue to increase in tonnage, thanks to new plantings in the Horse Heaven Hills and on the Wahluke Slope in particular.

The price per ton that growers received dropped to $988 from $1,030 in 2008. Scharlau said this reflects higher costs of production in 2008, primarily fuel to operate equipment.