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Recent vineyard acreage and winery surveys show that Washington has 31,000 acres of wine grapes—less than what industry analysts expected.

The first-ever winery survey found that 427 wineries crushed 120,500 tons of wine grapes last year.

Though grape production has increased threefold since 1993, when there were only 11,100 acres in the state, plantings have slowed down dramatically in recent years. Since the last survey in 2002, growers have only increased acreage by 11 percent.

"The survey results actually surprised me as they were less than I expected in terms of acreage," said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. "But I’m thrilled, because the numbers clearly indicate that growers and even growers-to-be have listened to our message of ‘do not plant without a contract.’ They are doing their homework, doing some replanting, and cautiously and judiciously determining new plantings."

She added that the survey also showed that the rapid expansion in the number of wineries in the state is not tied to the expansion of acreage.

Results of the acreage and winery surveys, conducted in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, were released during a statewide convention of grape growers and wineries in February by Christina Messer, NASS Washington field office director. Funding for the two surveys came from a USDA Risk Management Agency grant awarded to the Washington Wine Industry Foundation. The grant also funded a tree fruit acreage survey in Washington; tree fruit acreage results were released last December.

Vineyard acreage

An overview of the vineyard survey showed that since 2002, the planting of white varieties has outpaced red varieties slightly, with white varieties increasing by nearly 14 percent and red varieties increasing 8 percent in the same time frame. However, red varieties still dominate the state, with about 4,000 more red acres planted than white.

One of the rising stars in the survey is Riesling, which doubled in acreage since 2002, going from 2,200 to 4,400 acres. Riesling plantings now make up more than a third of the state’s white varieties. Chardonnay acreage, at about 6,000 acres, has decreased by 10 percent since the last survey. Red varieties showing the most acreage gains were Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Slight acreage declines were posted for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Lemberger.

The American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state that posted the largest acreage gains since the 2002 survey were:

• the Yakima Valley, with 1,460 new acres added for a total of 9,485 acres;

• the relatively new Wahluke Slope, adding 431 new acres for a total of 4,755 acres; and

• Horse Heaven Hills, with 329 new acres planted, totaling 6,667 acres.

Yakima Valley, a cooler region than others in the state, was the most planted AVA, with almost twice as many white varieties planted as red. The second leading AVA in wine grape acreage was Columbia Valley, with 6,693 acres, followed closely by Horse Heaven Hills AVA.

Messer noted that respondants intended to plant 1,100 acres of wine grapes in 2006, with 150 acres planned for removal.

Information was also gathered on estimated grape tonnage not harvested in 2005. Out of the 2,000 tons unharvested, 1,400 tons were left because of weather, 250 tons were not harvested for economic reasons, 250 tons were damaged by birds, and 100 tons were lost to disease.

Winery results

Preliminary results of the winery survey show that Washington wineries sold 15.2 million gallons of wine in 2006 (more than 13 million gallons sold in cases and about 2 million gallons sold as bulk wines). This equates to 6.4 million case equivalents.

Although there were no surprises in the winery data due to the close relationship between the state liquor board and industry, Robin Pollard, of the Washington Wine Commission, said the results are an indication of how dynamic the industry is.

Of the 427 wineries bonded in the state, 232 crushed grapes. Some 500 tons of the 120,500 tons of grapes crushed were grown in other states. The average price paid for wine grapes in 2006 was $948 per ton.

Chardonnay was still the leading variety crushed in 2006 at 28,600 tons, but Riesling closely followed at 23,800 tons, and Cabernet Sauvignon at 20,000 tons. Riesling’s popularity was not because of high prices—in 2006 it was among the lower-priced varieties at $716 per ton. But consumers consider the variety hot just now, and wineries can’t seem to get enough. According to the survey, the top-priced varieties, which ranged from $1,152 to $1,468 per ton, are red varieties.

Some of the challenges noted by the winery respondents included shipping and distribution difficulties, licensing and regulatory issues, cash flow, and marketing in a very competitive environment.

Unfilled wine grape needs reported by the wineries totaled about 240 tons. The following varieties were most needed in 2006: Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Gris. Typically, unfilled grape needs were reported in small quantities, said Messer, adding that there’s a need for organic wine grapes.