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Tuesday, Feb. 07, 2012

Wine industry descends on Kennewick

Wade Wolfe has been in the Washington wine industry a long time, yet he continues to be amazed by its sustained growth.

The owner and winemaker of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser will provide one of the highlights of this week's annual convention of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers when he delivers his "year in review" address to more than 2,000 members of the wine industry.

"Weather will be dominant," he said, referring to 2011's challenging conditions that caused a 20 percent reduction in crop. "We'll talk about what the crop looked like and how the weather impacted it."

Wolfe came to Washington in 1978 as a viticulturist for Chateau Ste. Michelle and later was general manager for Hogue Cellars. In between, he and his wife, Becky, started their own small winery in Prosser. When he retired from Hogue in 2004, he turned his focus full time on Thurston Wolfe.

Wolfe will deliver his report Wednesday at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, where the grape growers have met annually for the past half-decade.

On Tuesday afternoon, three professional-development seminars will take place to lead off the convention. Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the wine grape growers, said anyone can sign up separately for these without having to pay for the entire convention. The subjects include tasting room training and sustainable winery practices.

Last year, more than 2,000 people attended the convention, a record. Scharlau expects to exceed that number this year because early registrations are well ahead of last year.

Wolfe marvels at this. He remembers the early days of the convention, when it was a one-day affair that drew 50 people.

These days, the convention attracts more than just Washington grape growers and winemakers. Several members of the British Columbia, Oregon and Idaho wine industries also attend.

A highlight of the convention is the trade show, which is atop the hockey rink in the adjacent Toyota Center. Scharlau has 160 registered vendors -- with a waiting list of 35.

She said the grape growers have outgrown the Three Rivers Convention Center and would need to go to Spokane or Seattle to make the trade show bigger -- a move unlikely to happen.

"The industry would not be pleased with having to travel outside of the valley," she said.

Instead, she has been passing along ideas to convention center and visitor bureau staff about how to accommodate larger events such as hers.

This year's convention will feature about 20 seminars and workshops, including some in Spanish.

Washington State University, a key participant in the convention's educational seminars, will provide an update for the planned Wine Science Center in Richland. Last year, the wine industry pledged more than $7 million to help build the $23 million facility next to the WSU Tri-Cities campus. WSU President Elson Floyd and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates CEO Ted Baseler will speak Wednesday afternoon about the fundraising efforts for the facility.

The convention concludes Friday morning.

For more information, go to www.wawgg.org.