Food & Drink

Three reasons behind the boom in Washington wineries

Follow this column with any regularity and you know I’ve always been a big proponent of Washington wines.

This week, I look back at how far the state’s wine industry has progressed over the past 15 years; next week, I will look forward to what you might expect in the near future.

Until 2000, the state saw a steady but relatively small annual increase in the number of wineries. For example, according to the Washington Wine Commission, from 1999 to 2000 there was only a net increase of three wineries, bringing the statewide total to 163.

Then, in the next 10 years, things started to go a little crazy.

By 2010, that number had more than quadrupled, to around 700 wineries. Today, we’re at 850-plus. That’s an average increase of nearly 50 wineries each and every year for the past 15 years.

The obvious question: Why the explosion in Washington wineries?

Start with the grapes. Eastern Washington’s dry climate is ideal for many wine grape varietals. The extra hours of sunlight during the warm summer months, along with the cool evenings, contribute to grapes with higher acidity levels that “California wineries can only dream of,” so I’ve been told.

You’ve also got to credit the winemakers, whose skill level seems to improve every year. Even in the cooler, testy 2010 and 2011 vintages, Washington winemakers pulled through with wines that were extremely well-balanced, with excellent cellaring potential. It’s that level of consistency that makes local, domestic, and even international wine enthusiasts stand up and take notice.

But none of the growth and current popularity would have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Washington’s pioneer wineries decades ago.

A short list could include Casey and Vicki McClellan from Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla; Gail and Shirley Puryear from Bonair Winery and Paul Portteus from Portteus Winery in the Rattlesnake Hills region; Clay Mackey and Kay Simon from Chinook Wines, Scott Pontin from Pontin Del Roza Winery, and Dr. Wade Wolfe and Becky Yeaman from Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser; and from Red Mountain, John and Anna Williams of Kiona Vineyards, and, more recently, Tim and Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars.

These folks, some by their own admission, might not have known exactly all of the ins and outs of growing grapes and producing wines, but they all shared the vision that Washington could be a great wine-producing region, and they relentlessly pursued that goal.

For that, we owe them and many others, a debt of gratitude every time we lift a glass of Washington wine today.

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