Washington State’s wine community is gathering in Kennewick early this month to discuss a range of industry topics: from pest management and composting to label compliance and marketing. Alongside the seminars, there will be plenty of conversation about the economic challenges of the past year. Sales for many wineries were down in 2009, and this pushed some to reduce their production—which in turn left fruit hanging on the vines at the end of the most recent harvest.
This coming year may be tough, too. However, we need to remember that the future in general looks good. National macroeconomic numbers have been moving in the right direction for a few months now. Plus, Washington State remains a tremendous success story in the world of wine. At the height of the slump this past summer, market analysts at the Nielsen Company reported that Washington wines were selling across the United States at a pace nearly double that for wine as a whole. Sales of Washington wines were up 9.1 percent from last year, versus a 4.7 percent increase for wines overall. And that level of performance continues relative to other regions. For example, numbers released in December for Chardonnay sales across the United States once again showed Washington State as a star—with annual growth of more than 6 percent, compared to 4 percent for California and a notable loss of 6 percent for imports. It all points to further growth for our industry.
Admittedly, expansion will be slow in the short term, meaning the next year or two. America’s economic recovery will take longer than anyone would like; access to credit, including for vineyard and winery development, will remain tight. In parallel with these external factors, plenty of recent plantings in Washington are coming on stream now and during the next couple of years, and they will likely meet our production needs. But beyond the immediate horizon, development will resume, especially as we capture a sense of how newer vineyard sites and more recently planted clones and varieties are performing.
Some ask where this further development will happen. Among our wine grape-growing regions, the Horse Heaven Hills and the Wahluke Slope areas certainly seem strong prospects for longer-term growth. But there are tremendous opportunities for smaller regions, such as the climatically complex Columbia Gorge appellation and our newest AVA in Lake Chelan. As well, promising development will continue across the important Yakima Valley region. (See “A Grand Dream,” page 22 in this issue.)
In terms of actual output, our industry’s key varieties (Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) will remain strong. Cabernet, in particular, seems poised for continued success by most everyone’s account. By contrast, Syrah is a tough sell in the market right now. But as other Rhône varieties and Rhône blends continue to gather attention, it may prove resurgent. Speaking of other varieties, diversity has been a strength of Washington State’s wine production for many years, and it will continue to be so. Emerging varieties such as Malbec are on the rise, and former “exotics” such as Tempranillo and Gruner Veltliner are going into the ground with impressive results.
Of course, our groundwork is not without challenges. Washington may represent vineyard paradise more than anywhere on earth. But there is plenty of viticultural effort still required of us—including research into, and management of, leafroll and other viruses that erode our yields and can compromise quality. We also have tremendous opportunity to advance our understanding of soil biology and plant nutrition. I have heard from many people that even if we have our work dialed in on aboveground issues, there is still much to be accomplished on things that impact the vine below the surface. Clonal diversity and water usage represent still other key tasks. No doubt Washington State University’s Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling and the university’s dynamic viticulture and enology program will facilitate the necessary problem solving and innovation required for an even stronger foundation in the years ahead.
That foundation will be necessary. The work of the Washington Wine Commission and our regional partners to promote this state as a world-class wine region and a source of tremendous quality and value is enhancing our recognition. And greater awareness will translate into even more demand for our wines, especially as consumer confidence returns from its recent slump, and as wine, in general, finishes its migration in American culture from special-occasion purchase to shopping-cart staple.
So, I look forward to our industry gathering in Kennewick the first week of February. We can all share what we know about vital aspects of our work, we can talk more about where we want to go as a region and as a wine market category, and we can further our plans for how we’ll get there together. The challenges—viticultural, enological, and economic—are big, but the opportunities for Washington State wine are even bigger.