Comparing California, Washington wine

By on February 9, 2013

Washington wine

Washington competes with California on quality and value, not on size. This is The Benches Vineyard in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On Friday, the USDA released California’s preliminary 2012 wine grape harvest numbers, and they reveal a lot of interesting information, especially when compared with Washington wine.

Overall, California crushed more than 4 million tons of wine grapes, easily outdistancing 2005′s record crop of 3.75 million tons.

The No. 1 grape was, of course, Chardonnay, making up 16.8 percent of the state’s total. In second was Cabernet Sauvignon with 11.3 percent, then Zinfandel with 10.4 percent.

Washington is No. 2 in U.S. wine production behind California. As we shall see, it is a distant No. 2.

Here is how California and Washington wine compare on a macro level:

Total tonnage in 2012:

  • California: 4,014,000
  • Washington: 188,000

Red wine grapes:

  • California: 2,290,000
  • Washington: 94,500

White wine grapes:

  • California: 1,724,000
  • Washington: 93,500

Price per ton:

  • California: $769
  • Washington: $1,040

Price per ton, red grapes:

  • California: $879
  • Washington: $1,235

Price per ton, white grapes:

  • California: $624
  • Washington: $844

It is impossible to compare California with Washington wine (or any other state) because California’s overall business model for wine is so different. As former Gov. Chris Gregoire so famously pointed out last year, Washington doesn’t make jug wine. And that is where a lot of California’s wine grapes go.

Comparing Washington wine with Napa, Sonoma

It is more important to compare Washington wine, which is in the premium category, with California’s premium regions, particularly Napa and Sonoma counties. California’s statistics lump together Sonoma and Marin counties, so that is how we’ll look at them here.

Wine grape acreage (these numbers are not reported by the USDA, so they are gleaned from other sources):

  • Napa: 43,000
  • Sonoma: 60,000
  • Washington: 43,000

Total tonnage in 2012:

  • Napa: 181,183
  • Sonoma/Marin: 266,101
  • Washington: 188,000

Red wine grapes:

  • Napa: 130,638
  • Sonoma/Marin: 161,931
  • Washington: 94,500

White wine grapes:

  • Napa: 50,544
  • Sonoma/Marin: 104,170
  • Washington: 93,500

Now let’s dive into some of the varieties.

Chardonnay tonnage:

  • Napa: 31,790
  • Sonoma/Marin: 80,879
  • Washington: 36,900

Riesling tonnage:

  • Napa: 447
  • Sonoma/Marin: 354
  • Washington: 36,700

Cabernet Sauvignon:

  • Napa: 70,934
  • Sonoma/Marin: 46,769
  • Washington: 35,900

Merlot:

  • Napa: 24,977
  • Sonoma/Marin: 21,472
  • Washington: 34,600

Sauvignon Blanc:

  • Napa: 13,787
  • Sonoma/Marin: 17,086
  • Washington: 5,100

Pinot Gris:

  • Napa: 981
  • Sonoma/Marin: 2,634
  • Washington: 6,400

What we see from all this data is that the Washington wine industry is the same size as Napa in acreage and tonnage. Because Riesling carries a higher tonnage than Cabernet Sauvignon (roughly double, in fact), Washington brings in more grapes per acre than Napa.

Napa, meanwhile, puts much of its emphasis on its world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, as it should, which is why it grows nearly twice as much.

Washington, meanwhile, is well distributed between its top four grapes, with Chardonnay, Riesling, Cab and Merlot nearly even in tonnage last year.

Sonoma/Marin is top-heavy with Chardonnay but shows more balance on the red side, with Pinot Noir No. 1 at 52,379 tons and Cab a not-too-distant No. 2.

Washington wine competes on price

Where Washington wine competes, of course, is on price. Here’s a look at those numbers:

Price per ton for all wine grapes:

  • Napa: $3,578
  • Sonoma/Marine: $2,181
  • Washington: $1,040

As has been the case for several years, Washington wine grapes are about half the price of Sonoma’s and less than a third of Napa’s. Land prices in Napa are astronomical, partly because of the region’s well-earned reputation and partly because of scarcity – little unplanted acreage is left.

California No. 1 in Riesling

One other interesting tidbit that is buried in the numbers: California crushed more Riesling last year than Washington: 36,892 tons compared with 36,700 tons. This is a huge jump from 2011, when 27,756 tons were crushed in California. The vast majority of California’s Riesling is grown in cooler Monterey and San Benito counties, where 14,803 tons were crushed last year.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

8 Comments

  1. nicolas

    February 11, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Andy,

    Hi, where did you see the CA Riesling tonnage number? Seems high to me considering that CA reports 4,147 acres (my last data from 2011) of Riesling vs 7,864 for WA.

    Nicolas

  2. Andy Perdue

    February 11, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Nico,

    Yes, surprisingly high.

    I got it from the preliminary California harvest report:

    http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Grape_Crush/Prelim/2012/201202gcbtb00.pdf

    The Riesling tonnage is at the bottom of Page 6.

    • Nicolas

      February 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      Whao, I see that number. My acreage number comes from the state report – that would be a huge yield per acre. May be lots of Central valley Riesling gets blended away? Because we sure don’t see 2.5 million cases of CA Riesling….

      • Andy Perdue

        February 13, 2013 at 5:40 pm

        Nico,

        It looks like 14k or so is coming from Monterey and San Benito counties. That kind of makes sense. I wonder if this is wrong, though. It seems like too much of a jump from last year.

        • Nicolas

          February 14, 2013 at 8:52 am

          Yes – agreed. NASS has been wrong in the past (so have I). I am going to ask folks at Ciatti and Turrentine what they have on file – be back soon with more data.

  3. Edward Schulz

    February 11, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Very nicely done, reinforcing with figures what I have been sensing for years, that Washington is on track to exceed California’s premium wine production in every measurable production parameter.

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