State legislators hear Washington wine will be ‘bigger than wheat’

By on January 23, 2017
Steve Warner, left, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, and Josh McDonald, right, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, testify in front of the Washington State Senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee in Olympia.

Steve Warner, left, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, and Josh McDonald, right, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, brief the Washington State Senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Olympia. (Photo by John Stang/Special to Great Northwest Wine)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The state’s wine industry painted a rosy economic picture to the Washington State Senate Commerce, Labor & Sports Committee last week.

“You’re telling me that that wine is gonna be bigger than wheat?” asked committee chairman Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R- Spokane.

Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, said, “It’s gonna be bigger.”

Wheat growers harvested 2.2 million acres to produce 15,290 million bushels and generate $600 million in sales in 2016, according to the Washington Grain Commission.

Warner and Josh McDonald, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, briefed the senate committee last Thursday on the state industry’s economic situation.

They told the committee that Washington has approximately 900 wineries — compared to roughly 300 in 2004 — with an average of four new ones sprouting up each month. The state has roughly 350 grape growers using approximately 53,000 acres, according to the wine commission.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2016 report of the 2015 harvest listed Washington state’s wine grape total production at 222,000 tons with the average price per ton of $1,145.

As a result, growers throughout the state were paid a total of $254.2 million for those grapes.

USDA grape census expected to reveal 2016 records

Snow blankets the back side of Goose Ridge with Candy Mountain and Badger Mountain in the distance on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

Snow blankets the north side of Goose Ridge near Richland, Wash., with Candy Mountain and Badger Mountain in the distance on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (Photo by Robert Marple Jr./Great Northwest Wine)

Final figures from the USDA are expected to be announced in February, but Ste. Michelle Wine Estates estimated last fall that the 2016 harvest for Washington came in at approximately 275,000 tons — an increase of 20 percent from the bumper crop of 2014.

It’s been a steady climb for the Washington wine industry in the past decade. The state’s wineries crushed 156,000 tons of grapes in 2009, a total that grew to 210,000 tons in 2013. That translates to 10.9 million cases in 2009 and 14.8 million cases in 2013.

More importantly, wine sales grew from $1.07 billion in 2009 to $1.5 billion in 2013.

In 2015, the state’s wineries crushed 47,000 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 44,000 tons of Riesling, 42,000 tons of Chardonnay, 35,000 tons of Merlot, 16,000 tons of Syrah, 9,000 tons of Pinot Gris, 6,000 tons of Sauvignon Blanc, 3,000 tons of Cabernet Franc, 2,000 tons of Malbec and 2,000 tons of Gewürztraminer.

According to wine commission statistics, Washington produces the world’s largest percentage of wines scoring 90 or more, while also being the least expensive among those high-quality wines.

Forty-six percent of Washington’s wines from 2009 to 2015 scored 90 points or higher in ratings by major wine publications. During the same period, 45 percent of Oregon wines scored 90 or higher, France 41 percent, Italy 34 percent and California at 32 percent.

Meanwhile from 2009 to 2015, the average price of a Washington wine scoring 90 points or higher was $43. Other wines of similar quality in same period broke down as Oregon, $49; Italy, $69; California, $73; and France, $95.

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About John Stang

John Stang is a longtime journalist who covers Washington state politics. He lives in the Seattle area.

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