The explosive growth of Washington’s wine industry over the past 30 years has given new meaning to the local harvest season.
In that time, more than 18 wineries have established themselves in Spokane, with many of them trucking grapes into the Lilac City for the crush, fermentation and aging. Wineries are also finding success in Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.
“We just got done crushing 7 tons,” said Greg Lipsker, one of the owners and winemakers at Barrister Winery in downtown Spokane, during a hurried afternoon last week.
For the winemakers as well as consumers, autumn has become an exciting time with the sights, smells and tastes of wine grapes being transformed into some of the best wine being produced in the region.
“Fall is synonymous with bringing in grapes,” said Rebecca Gunselman of Robert Karl Cellars in downtown Spokane. “This is a great time to go visit the wineries.”
Her winery in a historic fire station building was lined on Saturday with tanks filled with crushed grapes undergoing fermentation, a natural process in which yeast converts sugar into alcohol.
Modern wine production in Spokane dates back to the early 1980s when Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and Latah Creek Winery were established.
Arbor Crest is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a production of 20,000 cases of wine, up from the 5,000 cases it produced in 1982. Latah Creek also turned 30 this year.
Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels, winemaker at Arbor Crest, was in the middle of a weeklong effort to crush 15 tons of riesling grapes for the popular white table wine.
The 2012 vintage is considered the best in at least three years, and perhaps among the best since 2007.
Production is up over the weather-challenged vintage of 2011 when a combination of a hard freeze the previous fall and a cool spring caused yields to drop.
The Washington State Wine Commission estimated that this year’s wine grape harvest will reach 190,000 tons, a record. That is up from the previous record of 156,000 tons in 2010.
Reports from winemakers indicate that the quality of the fruit has been consistently good, largely because of steady warm weather that lingered into October. Excessive summer heat, which can shut down grape growth temporarily, was not a problem this year.
“It’s been phenomenal,” said Mielke-van Loben Sels. “The weather has played out beautifully for us.”
Brian Padrta, winemaker and owner of BridgePress Cellars, said the grapes have nice acidity to frame the fruit flavors. “The complexity is there,” he said. “The clusters are well developed, uniform berry size, very succulent clusters.”
He and his partners in Marketplace LLC have just opened a winemaking facility in the historic 1910 Foresters of America Hall at Pacific Avenue and Browne Street. They are also producing wine under the Emvy Cellars label, and eventually will become the winemaking facility for Grande Ronde Cellars.
Tanks of fermenting syrah wine were pressed and prepared for barrel aging on Saturday. The syrah came from the highly regarded Tapteil Vineyard at Red Mountain just west of Tri-Cities.
“Everything is coming together,” said Mark Wilkerson, an owner of Marketplace and the Emvy label.
Across the Pacific Northwest, small mom-and-pop wineries have been growing in tandem with the large players.
In 1981, Washington had 19 wineries. Today it has nearly 740 wineries.
Erica Waliser, a spokeswoman for the wine commission, said many of those wineries are in places such as Moses Lake, Wilbur, Lake Chelan, Quincy, Prosser and the Columbia River Gorge.
The smaller wineries often hold special events such as the annual harvest party in September at Pend Oreille Winery in Sandpoint.
“It’s a great kind of local agriculture story that people love,” Waliser said, and the local wines are becoming a source of community pride when they show up on store shelves.
“It’s a product that people get passionate about,” she said.
It’s also a product that is providing a lot of jobs and bringing in a lot of money.
The industry’s economic impact is valued at $8.6 billion statewide and $14.9 billion nationally, according to an analysis prepared for the wine commission earlier this year.
The industry supports 30,000 jobs in Washington with a payroll of $1.2 billion. Nationally, the industry supports 70,000 jobs and a payroll of $2.8 billion.
Many of the small wineries have tasting rooms and gift shops with glassware, T-shirts, crafts and wine paraphernalia. Winery tasting room sales can be a big source of income.
Waliser said some of the small, newer wineries are struggling to find enough fruit to fill their production goals, which is driving the increase in vineyard production.
“Demand is up and sales are good,” she said.