A new interest in clones and lesser-known varieties will drive vineyard plantings in Washington state in the next ten years, say industry experts.
A new interest in clones and lesser-known varieties will drive vineyard plantings in Washington state in the next ten years, say industry experts.

Crystal ball visions given by a cross section of Washington State’s wine grape industry show a bright future and an industry that continues to expand and evolve.

Dr. Markus Keller, Washington State University viticulture researcher, sees a bigger focus on the use of wine grape clones in Washington State in the next ten years. “We have a lot of varieties being grown now in the state, but there will be more focus on clones and matching them to the best site,” he said, predicting that variety diversification will increase with the planting of lesser known varieties, like Grenache, Tempranillo, and others.

He anticipates warming in the next decade with heat waves across the state, resulting in more summer droughts because of early-season snowmelt and runoff. “We’re likely to see more droughts like the 2005 drought which cut off irrigation water early in the season.”

In the state’s warm sites, like Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and the Wahluke Slope, the changing climate will begin to drive variety and clonal selection. “Diversifying with more heat-tolerant varieties and clones will help grape growers deal with climate change adaptation,” Keller said. “Except that we don’t know anything about what clones do best here because there’s been limited research done.”

Keller also believes that growers will change irrigation strategies. In the last decade, many of the state’s grape growers have used deficit irrigation to control canopy growth and berry size, but he thinks growers have taken the concept too far and overstressed the vines late in the season, especially white varieties. He envisions a fine-tuning of deficit irrigation techniques that will identify different amounts of water for groups of varieties and styles of wines. Washington’s Gewurztraminer wines, for example, are not as aromatic as the same wines produced in Germany and France’s Alsace region, he said. “Part of the difference is a warmer climate here, but there are things we can do with vineyard management to get more of the aromatic results as the European wines.”

Continued growth

Winemaker David Forsyth projects continued growth in the state’s grape acreage and the number of new wineries in the next ten years. “We’ll continue to grow and grow more quickly than in the past,” he predicts. “In ten years, we could very likely double our current size, increasing to around 60,000 acres.”

Forsyth, winemaker for Mercer Estates, Prosser, said there is much more outside interest in the state as a wine region now that it has critical mass and a reputation for producing premium, value-priced wines.

“The current economy opens new opportunities for Washington State,” Forsyth said. “While the $100-bottle Cabernet Sauvignon wines will eventually come back, the economy has caused people to slow down and look at what they’re spending on wine. It’s driving them to Washington State because we can give them great value for their money.”

In the future, vintners will use new knowledge and tools in their winemaking, especially in the area of phenolic composition of red wines, he said. Phenolics are an area that has received great focus and research in recent years, and he thinks winemakers will look more deeply into better understanding the role of phenolics in wines.

New variety interest

The boom in new and unusual variety plantings will continue in the next decade, forecasts Wade Wolfe, owner of Prosser’s Thurston Wolfe Winery. Wolfe, also a grape grower and viticultural consultant, observes that there is interest in planting lesser-known varieties among both growers and wineries, small and large. “There’s been a blossoming of interest in all kinds of varieties new to Washington,” he said, adding that many of the smaller wineries have moved away from producing mainstream white wine varieties like Chardonnay or Riesling, but are instead trying Spanish and Portuguese white varieties.

The trend of planting new and exotic varieties reflects today’s adventuresome consumers who are interested in trying unique and unusual wines, Wolfe said.

In the winery, he sees winemakers returning to more natural or traditional winemaking techniques, along with larger wineries pursuing energy-efficient technology, like cold and protein stabilization techniques. On the growing side, Wolfe doesn’t anticipate further mechanization in the vineyard unless the industry is confronted with ­serious labor problems.

He also predicts there will be continued expansion into new growing areas in the state, particularly in the Lake Chelan and Columbia Gorge regions. He thinks that Royal Slope will be one of the next federally approved appellations, but there will be interest in other growing regions as well.

Wolfe agrees that wine grape acreage and the number of new wineries will continue to climb beyond today’s 33,000 acres (estimated) and more than 600 wineries. “The planting doesn’t seem to slow down at all,” he said, adding that the industry could reach 50,000 acres within ten years.

One of the biggest changes he identified that has started occurring within the industry is the new focus on viticulture and enology by Washington State University, evident by the recent hiring of Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling as viticulture and enology program director.

“We are now primed to have a world-class program to support an already world-class viticulture and enology research program,” Wolfe said. “There is a real focus on education and meeting our industry’s needs from within the state rather than relying on California, Europe, and other institutions to provide the brain power.”

Strong foundation

Roger Gamache, Mesa, Washington, grower and co-owner of Gamache Vintners located in Prosser, echoes the view of Wolfe regarding WSU’s viticulture and enology program. He believes that with the solid WSU research team already in place, combined with the renowned Henick-Kling and Central Washington University’s world wine program taught by Amy Mumma, the state wine grape industry now has a strong foundation to carry it into the future. “We’ve got the foundation in place—academia and research—the two strongholds of an industry,” Gamache said, adding that the results will be a well-trained and educated workforce entering the industry.

“We’ve now got the vineyards and wineries, the research, and the academics to take the industry to the next level,” he said.

But Gamache cautions growers to keep future plantings in check with the struggling economy. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and get into an overplanting mode or let the big players control planting. The real issue is to strengthen and take care of our existing vineyards because they are the basis for the foundation of the industry.”

—by Melissa Hansen