Bridging the Islands The Washington wine grape industry has come a long way in the last decade.
As the second largest wine-grape-growing area in the country, we're often proud to point out our accomplishments in terms of growth. In a decade, we've come a long way:
We've grown to over 60,000 acres of grapes; we have several major grape-processing facilities and over 500 wineries. Our economic value is being measured as this goes to press, and we expect that we will nearly double the 2001 value of $2.4 billion.
There are several new wine marketing and promotion groups created to build tourism for wineries. The Washington Wine Commission has increased assessments largely because of increased demand for the promotion of the Washington brand. The Washington Wine Institute has moved to Olympia and now has its own executive director. The Washington Wine Technical Group has been reorganized and reinvigorated, and the industry Foundation Block has been revitalized and broadened to include both Oregon and Idaho, with several years of funding coming from Congress.
Washington State University has expanded in width and breadth to respond to our educational needs in both enology and viticulture to the point where it is --hiring a viticulture and enology program director (with an endowed chair). Several community colleges have built programs. Central Washington University added a business and marketing program for the wine trade, and a Latino Agricultural Education Program for Viticulture is in its second year.
Here at home, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers has quadrupled in size over the past decade as demands increase for education and for advocacy on issues important to the wine-grape grower community at the state and federal level, including a guide to sustainable viticulture called Vinewise. We have gone from begging 40 vendors to attend our annual trade shows to now having nearly 200 with a waiting list.
Perhaps the most critical area for a relatively young and growing wine region of the world is research funding. The industry had enjoyed a total of $425,000 annually for viticulture and enology research coming from a combination of wine tax funds and WSU's budget. The Wine Advisory Committee, which was created in 1981 by the state legislature and in 1998 was incorporated into the Wine Commission, exists to provide recommendations to WSU for the expenditure of those funds. However, the pool of funds has slowly decreased, falling to about $400,000. With the addition of five WSU faculty (at the request of the industry through the Education Consortium) and with the increased needs of the industry by virtue of our growth, the research requests are double that of the available funding. And what this does not consider is research needs outside the state that do in fact affect us and research needs here that affect the rest of the country. From the research perspective, up to this point we have operated largely as an island. In most cases our research is done by our researchers and our researchers do our work.
But in 2003, some key stakeholders from the California grape and wine industry met to address what they considered a growing crisis in research funding. They also wanted to develop --priorities that would benefit the industry (more than just California). More meetings were held and a national audience was invited, including many from Washington State. The group agreed that the current state of industry-funded research must change if the grape and wine industry were to remain successful. They also agreed that it had to be a collaborative initiative with the grape and wine industry, university research institutions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other research institutions. All parties needed to be at the table to assure that the U.S. industry would be the worldwide leader in wine science, innovation, economic issues, and environmental and business practices. Going back to the island reference, the goal was to bridge all the islands.
This meant that a structure had to be created with permanent governance to identify and prioritize industrywide research needs, to identify funding and develop new funding to support research, and to develop exchange between and within industry and universities and other key stakeholders in the grape and wine community. That organization has been formed and is called the National Grape and Wine Initiative. Washington holds two seats on the board and many more in the committee structure.
But we still have holdouts on the islands. There are those who believe we should only spend our monies on our researchers. I wonder if that means our researchers are only allowed to apply for monies in-state? It's hard to keep them all funded on $400,000. Cynicism aside, can the Washington grape and wine industry really continue to grow and to thrive while operating as an island? Wouldn't our industry benefit from a national endeavor that prioritizes all research needs and also helps seek funding? Can we compete globally with countries that spend two or three times what the United States spends on research and development? Washington would benefit from additional funding for our researchers while providing them national or international recognition.
In addition, some of our needs may very well be best handled by research specialists at Cornell, Davis, or elsewhere. Bridging our islands allows for exchange, allows for less duplication of similar research, and allows for better research with greater focus, as well as access to a larger pool of funds.
What have we to lose but an island?