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Sunday, Feb. 06, 2011

Washington state enjoys record wine grape harvest

KENNEWICK -- Despite a year when weather rarely cooperated, the Washington wine industry still enjoyed a record harvest in 2010.

Washington crushed 160,000 tons of wine grapes, up from 156,000 tons in 2009 -- a 2.5 percent increase, according to data recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state has more than doubled its wine grape production in 12 years.

The leading variety in Washington is riesling, which accounted for 33,500 tons. That is up from 32,100 tons the previous year.

For the first time, cabernet sauvignon was No. 2, with 31,900 tons, up from 27,600 tons the year before.

"That's more a function of new bearing vines in 2010," said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville and Paterson. "Riesling came in spot on with our projections, but the overall crop was down from what was estimated before harvest."

Grapes typically begin producing fruit in their third season, so vines planted in 2008 were harvested for the first time last fall.

Butch Milbrandt, owner of Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa, estimated that about 300 acres of riesling came into production last year. He added that his tonnage was down about 10 percent in almost all of his vineyards.

"We had only one block that came in on our target," he said. "Everything else was just a little low."

Milbrandt said many growers aggressively thinned their crops because of cool weather.

"We were thinning into October to get to a tonnage we could ripen," he said.

Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said riesling and cabernet sauvignon are priorities for the Northwest's largest wine company.

"We've been putting a lot of riesling in the ground," he said.

Riesling is being planted throughout the Columbia Valley, including the Yakima Valley, areas of the Horse Heaven Hills, Quincy and Lake Chelan. Each area, he said, brings a different style.

More importantly, it helps spread out harvest from early September through late October.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the world's largest riesling producer at about 1 million cases of the white wine per year, and riesling makes up 45 percent of its total production.

Cabernet sauvignon from Washington has gained a global reputation in the past several years.

That's thanks to Quilceda Creek Vintners' wines earning perfect scores from the influential Wine Advocate newsletter and Columbia Crest's 2005 reserve cabernet sauvignon being named Wine Spectator's No. 1 wine in the world in 2009.

"Cab is king," Bertheau said. "Obviously, we're still in love with merlot, but everyone is planting cab in these warmer areas."

"We've had a lot of focus on the Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope for cabernet sauvignon," Corliss added. "We like the warmer growing regions for that variety."

The No. 3 grape last fall was chardonnay, which fell 14.37 percent from 2009. The core issue, said Corliss, Milbrandt and Bertheau, was a problem with rot because of September's unseasonal rainfall.

"We just got hit with a bad year for botrytis," Bertheau said.

Merlot was No. 4 with 28,300 tons, an increase of 14.1 percent over the year before, followed by Syrah with 10,900 tons, up 9 percent.

White varieties totaled 80,100 tons, just ahead of red varieties. The average price per ton was $1,040, which was up from $989 in 2009 and ahead of 2008's record level of $1,030.

The highest-priced grape was malbec, which fetched an average of $1,540 per ton.

In California, the average price per ton of wine grapes last year was $602.

Washington is the No. 2 wine producer in the country. By comparison, California crushed 3.26 million tons of wine grapes last fall. New York was third with 52,000 tons, and Oregon was fourth with 40,000 tons.

Washington is No. 1 in the nation in juice grape production. Last year, it crushed 176,000 tons, primarily Concords.

This was down from 225,000 tons in 2009. New York was No. 2 last year with 120,000 tons.