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Thursday, Jul. 14, 2011

Walla Walla Valley helps Oregon wine industry grow

WALLA WALLA -- A report released today indicates that wine production in Oregon has grown into a $2.7 billion industry.

And Norm McKibben, a leading figure in the Washington wine industry, is quick to point out that what's good for Oregon wine is good for the Walla Walla Valley.

That report, developed for the Oregon Wine Board by Full Glass Research in Berkeley, Calif., showed a nearly 50 percent increase since 2005 -- remarkable considering the recent recession.

"The wine economy as a whole has been very good down there," said McKibben, past chair of the Washington Wine Commission and former member of the Oregon Wine Board. "That's very encouraging for all of us. The thing to remember is that even though in the Northwest we only make 5 percent of the wine in the country, there are more and more people looking to the Northwest for wine."

Recent figures reported by the Washington Wine Commission estimate the industry's economic impact state at $3 billion. And the global popularity of Walla Walla wines is a major reason for the growth of both Washington and Oregon.

Few, however, realize that many of the grapes produced in the Walla Walla Valley are grown around the town of Milton-Freewater, Ore. And McKibben has played a major role in the vineyard development with famed Seven Hills Vineyard, cornerstone to the expanding SeVein Vineyards project. Long-time partners include Leonetti Cellar, L'Ecole No. 41 and McKibben's Pepper Bridge Winery.

"About 40 percent of the vines in the Walla Walla Valley are on the Oregon side," McKibben said. "Once SeVein is planted out, about two-thirds of the grapes in the valley will be grown in Oregon."

An increasing number of wineries in other portions of Oregon recognize the quality of Walla Walla Valley grapes, which was reflected in the report.

"They wrote that out of the four major areas in Oregon, one of them was the Walla Walla Valley, and it's great to see that recognition," McKibben said.

In fact, Seven Hills, at 180 acres, sold grapes to 25 wineries in 2010. SeVein will bring another 150 acres of grapes onto the Northwest market.

McKibben, an Oregon State University graduate, said he's seen more cooperation between the two states in recent years.

"I don't think that Oregon and Washington are in competition," McKibben said. "We grow Bordeaux varieties and Syrah -- not Pinot Noir -- and market them outside of the Northwest."

According to the report, Oregon residents support local wineries, buying 41 percent of the wines made in the state. Many of those bottles are Willamette Valley's world-famous Pinot Noir.

"It used to be that you weren't an Oregon winery if you weren't in the Willamette Valley," McKibben said with a chuckle. "But in the last six or seven years, folks in Oregon have done a good job of recognizing the existence of the Walla Walla Valley, and a couple of regional wine tours put on by folks in Oregon have made a point to see the Walla Walla Valley."

Duane Wollmuth, the new executive director for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, estimates there are about 120 active wineries in and around Walla Walla.

Only eight of those are in Oregon.

"There are some very good wineries on the Milton-Freewater side of the border, but we need to see five or six more to create more of a cluster for wine touring," McKibben said. "One of my goals is to push that a bit. I want to make the pitch that we should continue to be good neighbors to each other."

The list begins with Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery, Don Carlo Vineyards, Spofford Station Vineyards, Stella Fino and Tero Estates.

Two others rank among the Northwest's most decorated wineries. The Brown family has turned some of its orchards into vineyard and operates Watermill Winery -- Wine Press Northwest's 2010 Oregon Winery to Watch.

Earlier this year, Zerba Cellars was chosen as Wine Press Northwest's Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. That was before their Bowlus Hills 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, farmed in Oregon, earned Best in Show at the Northwest Wine Summit.

Ironically, there are several vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley with a history of growing Pinot Noir. Rick Small of famed Woodward Canyon bottled some years ago.

"Rick made a little bit and did a nice job with it," McKibben said.

Among the interesting facts and figures in the Oregon Wine Board report:

* In 2004, there were 247 wineries in Oregon. As of 2010, that number had swelled to 418 wineries. However, only 315 wineries crushed grapes last year.

* The average price per ton of pinot noir in 2010 was $2,470, while cabernet sauvignon was $1,830. In Washington, the highest-price grape was malbec, $1,540 per ton.

* In 2010, Oregon harvested about 31,000 tons, a 38 percent increase since 2004. Washington brought in 160,000 tons, but its growth during the same time frame was 33 percent. By comparison, California harvested a whopping 6,440 tons last year.

* Sustainable farming practices are important to Oregon consumers. Nearly 19 percent of wine bottles in Oregon featured some indication of environmentally friendly practices on the label.