Oregon has pinot noir.
Sure, it grows some 80 other varietals. But there’s that one for which it is most known.
Washington grows about the same number of different kinds of wine grapes. But, said Craig Leuthold, who owns Maryhill Winery with his wife, Vicki, and serves on the board of the Washington Wine Institute, which advocates for Washington wineries, “its strength is its weakness.”
“We can grow so many varietals well that we haven’t been able to hang our hat on one like Oregon has done with pinot,” he said, noting, also, “That diversity will help us in the long run.”
Meantime, “We have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness of Washington wine.”
Wine is produced in all 50 states, and the U.S. is the fourth-largest wine-producing country in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain. California dominates domestic wine production. But Washington’s wine industry is growing faster. Still, getting the word out about its high quality and comparatively low cost is one of its biggest challenges, according to industry experts.
“The challenge is educating consumers outside of the state of Washington as to the quality of grapes in this state,” said Greg Lipsker, co-owner of Barrister Winery in Spokane and another board member of the Washington Wine Institute.
Lipsker, Leuthold and Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, all point to the industry’s relative newness as an underlying factor for marketing – as well as other – challenges.
“We’re still learning,” Warner said. “There’s a lot that can be tweaked and dialed in.”
Marketing to consumers outside this area is just one of the industry’s concerns. “We’re investing in viticulture and enological research to take us to the next level,” Warner said.
Old World grape-growing and wine-producing regions such as France, Spain and Italy have had hundreds, even thousands, of years of experience. “They’ve had hundreds of thousands of tries,” Warner said.
Here in Washington state, most growers and winemakers have anywhere from a few decades to as few as five or 10 years. They’re still fine-tuning practices and discovering what grapes grow best in particular microclimates.
“We knew we could grow wine grapes, but we didn’t know which grapes were right for the different regions, latitude and slope,” Warner said. “Now, we’re about to zero in. Our learning has been and will continue to be more accelerated than what other regions had to go through for years and years and decades and centuries.”
One of the areas of study is the effect of smoke from wildfires on wine grapes. With warm temperatures and dry conditions, Warner said, “we just think there’s always going to be a concern in the future. This isn’t going to go away,” he said. “We need to have a plan.”
Researchers at Washington State University are working to identify those effects as well as examine how to minimize them. They’re experimenting with levels of intensity and different durations as well as some from native species of pine and other plants.
“You get one chance every year,” Warner said. “It’s not like beer or spirits.”
However, in the vineyards, Warner said, the effects of smoke from wildfires don’t pose the biggest challenge to Washington’s wine industry. “Labor,” he said, “is our biggest challenge.”
Specifically, Warner said, “It’s competing with other crops.” Warner cited competition from hops and tree fruit as factors in pulling workers away from working in wine grapes.
Nationally, he pointed toward debate on guest-worker programs and immigration. Based on a national study, Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, estimates about half of all Washington farmworkers are undocumented. Comprehensive immigration reform could help stabilize, maybe even widen, the workforce.
In addition to competition for – and a shortage of – labor, the cost is also going up. At the very least, farmworkers make minimum wage, which in Washington is $11, one of the highest in the country. Washington’s minimum wage is slated to increase annually during the next three years: $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020.
And the market is getting more competitive.
“California wineries are coming up,” Leuthold said. “Canada is coming down.”
Acreage here is available at a fraction of the cost of land in California. And, in older wine grape growing regions – such as California’s Napa Valley – there isn’t much, if any, room to grow, Warner said. “There’s no new acreage in Napa. Napa’s planted out,” he said. “We have new acreage available. We have acreage that can be converted from other crops. We have room to grow.”
Despite all the recent growth in Washington wine, three major companies dominate the industry. Accounting for approximately 80 percent of the state’s wine landscape are: Constellation, whose brands include Hogue Cellars and Charles Smith, among others; Precept, whose brands include Canoe Ridge, Waterbrook and Sagelands, among others; and Ste. Michelle, which formed in 1967 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Chateau Ste. Michelle, its flagship and the state’s largest winery, produces some 3.4 million cases annually.
The majority of Washington’s wineries – some 64 percent – sell fewer than 1,000 cases per year.
Warner predicts growth in Washington’s wine industry will continue.
“If you look at past data, we continued to grow through the recession. We saw no downturn in the number of tons harvested, the number of acres planted or the number of wineries coming on board,” he said. “People like to drink wine to celebrate and to mourn, if they’re happy or sad. Generally people tend to kind of like wine.”
And, despite some challenges in Washington’s up-and-coming wine industry, “There’s just so much opportunity out there,” Warner said. “All signs are pointed in the right direction. All signs are pointed up.”