WASHINGTON STATE WINE HISTORY: THE BEGINNING
Washington’s first grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1825. By 1910, wine grapes were growing in many areas of the state, following the path of early settlers. French, German and Italian immigrants pioneered the earliest plantings. Wine historians Ron Irvine and Dr. Walter Clore document in their book The Wine Project a continuous and connected effort to cultivate wine grapes beginning with those early plantings at Fort Vancouver. Hybrid varieties arrived in nurseries in the Puget Sound region as early as 1854, and by 1860 wine
grapes were planted in the Walla Walla Valley. Large-scale irrigation, fueled by runoff from the melting snowcaps of the Cascade Mountains, began in eastern Washington in 1903, unlocking the dormant potential of the land and its sunny, arid climate. Italian and German varietals were planted in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys and wine grape acreage expanded rapidly in the early
part of the 20th century. In 1910, the first annual Columbia River Valley Grape Carnival was held in Kennewick. By 1914, important vineyards had sprung up in the Yakima Valley—most notably the vineyards of W.B. Bridgman of Sunnyside. Muscat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain dating to 1917 are still producing and are considered the oldest in the state.
The arrival of Prohibition in 1920 put a damper on wine grape production, but ironically may have helped spawn early interest in home winemaking. At the end of Prohibition the first bonded winery in the Northwest was founded on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island. By 1938 there were 42 wineries located throughout the state.
The first commercial-scale plantings began in the 1960s. The efforts of the earliest producers, predecessors to today’s Columbia Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle, attracted the attention of wine historian Leon Adams. Adams in turn introduced pioneering enologist Andre Tchelistcheff to Chateau Ste. Michelle. It was Tchelistcheff who helped guide Chateau Ste. Michelle’s early efforts and mentored modern winemaking in this state. The resulting rapid expansion of the industry in the mid ‘70s is now rivaled by today’s breakneck pace, where a new winery opens nearly every 15 days.
THE STATE OF TODAY’S INDUSTRY
The trend for quality wine production started by a few home winemakers and visionary farmers has become a respected and influential $4.4 billion-plus industry within Washington State. Washington wine is available in 50 states and more than 40 countries globally. Washington ranks second nationally for premium wine production and over 50,000 acres* are planted to vinifera grapes. Over 40% of these vines have been planted in the last 10 years as the industry rapidly expands. Significant developments in Washington State include the formation of the Washington State Wine Commission, a unified marketing and trade association, in 1987. In 2003, the Washington Wine Institute and its educational partners celebrated the state’s $2.3 million investment (per biennium) to create new 2-year and 4-year degree programs supporting Washington’s growing wine industry. The program provides an educated work force to satisfy the needs of the growing industry. A degree program, ongoing education and research enhance the state’s reputation as a quality wine-producing region. In 2011, the industry voted to increase their annual assessments to help fund a world-class Wine Science Center at Washington State University which will open in Spring 2015.
Vintage Conditions in Washington
Washington State encompasses a diverse collection of climates, grape varieties, vineyard practices, and winemaking styles. Outside of a few basics that apply to any wine region, it would be impossible to outline a “perfect” vintage for the state as a whole. However, a combination of several factors throughout the year can contribute to ideal vintage conditions, while other factors can present certain challenges.
Ideal Conditions: Cold temperatures (between 28 and 45 degrees) to promote full dormancy to allow vines to store energy in the form of carbohydrates to utilize in spring budding, root growth for nutrient storing, kill off many potential colonies of vine pests.
Potential Challenges: Full deep freeze (below 28 degrees for an extended period of time), which might kill the vines to the ground and force either regrafting/replanting.
Ideal Conditions: Gradually rising but cool temperatures (between 50 and 60 degrees) to promote mid-spring vine and leaf bud burst (March to April), rain to saturate the ground for resources during the dry summer months, leaf development to induce photosynthesis for more energy to grow the vine. Late spring (May) will bring flowering as temperatures warm (between 58 and 68 degrees) with some rain/irrigation needed for humidity/water levels necessary. Shortly thereafter (late May), fruit set in the form of tiny seeds are formed.
Potential Challenges: Late freeze/frost/snow storm/heavy rain/wind storms, which might damage the young bud burst/vine tendrils/flowers. Delayed temperature accumulation.
Ideal Conditions: Gradual, even rising temperatures (70 to 90 degrees) to promote grape development and lead to normal veraison (color development and phenolic ripening), increasing sunlight hours to provide photosynthetic energy from the canopy to produce sugars, periodic small amounts of rain (rare but welcome), diurnal temperature variation (up to 40 degrees difference between 2 pm and 2 am) to ensure balancing acid levels remain high, medium level winds to control pests/fungal diseases.
Potential Challenges: Hot temperature (95 degrees plus) spikes/extended periods of time, which will force the vine to shut down and delay fruit development or raise sugar levels/drop acid levels. Cloudy days to hinder sunshine hours.
Ideal Conditions: Gradually cooling temperatures (70 to 80 degrees) during Harvest to retain acids and allow for phenolic maturation without sugar accumulation, lack of rain to ensure there is no dilution to grapes during picking (through until November in many cases), medium level winds to control pests/fungal diseases.
Potential Challenges: Early frost/freeze, which might kill grapes on vine or vine itself. Early rain, which could dilute sugars in grapes.
This was a second consecutive warm year for Washington, with many growers reporting that it was their warmest year on record. Grape production continued to expand, up 8% to 227,000 tons. Much like the year before, the warm temperatures advanced most markers of the growing season. July and August saw record temperatures in some locations, and the warm temperatures continued all the way into mid-October.
This year was a warm growing season in Washington, with above-average temperatures throughout spring and summer and notably warmer-than-average nighttime temperatures. A dramatic mid-September drop in temperatures extended harvest into early November. Many growers and winemakers reported lower acidities, sometimes markedly so, and in some cases higher sugar levels.
Wine grape growers were pleased to see a return to “normal” weatherfor the 2012 harvest. 188,000 tons of grapes were harvested, Washington’s biggest harvest yet and almost a 20% increase over the previous record harvest in 2010. Warm, sunny and consistent weather during the growing season with no rain lead to fruit ripening on schedule and helping winemakers avoid a compressed harvest as some had seen in 2010 and 2011. Winemakers were thankful that the warm days cooled off significantly during the night, with temperatures in Walla Walla even dipping down into the 30s in early September. This dramatic diurnal shift allowed the grapes to retain their natural acidity, which will balance out the plush, ripe flavors that will result from the 2012 vintage.
A late 2010 freeze damaged some vines in the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla AVAs and a cool summer resulted in the latest harvest on record for many vineyards. Much of the fruit was picked in a short period, creating a compressed harvest. Acidity was moderate in both red and white varieties, and ph was generally low, which will allow wines from 2011 to age for a long time to come. Despite some weather challenges, the fruit from 2011 fully ripened and many vintners celebrated the lower alcohol levels and crafted elegant, complex wines from the vintage.
Bud break arrived on schedule in early April, but a cool, wet spring led to delayed flowering and reduced fruit set across many varieties. An unusually cool summer produced dramatic differences in ripening between warmer and cooler sites, with veraison extending well into September in some cooler areas. However, naturally low yields, combined with over a month of consistently warm weather from late September through late October, produced phenolic ripeness and flavor development with extraordinary natural acidity. Cool, wet weather returned in late October, an appropriate bookend to a challenging harvest. Overall, 2010 should produce balanced, elegant wines with lower alcohol and higher acidity.
Cool spring temperatures and high wind conditions led to late bud break and a small quantity of poor fruit set. Very hot, dry summer (the hottest July on record for many sites) accelerated ripening of sugars and a need to pick most grapes by early October, earlier than generally practiced in the past 15 years. Night time temperatures were slightly higher than normal, as well. An even, warm, dry September helped balance the sugars/acids and allow phenolic ripeness/flavor development to occur. Colors in black grape varieties were deep, tannins developed quickly. Early frost hit vines on October 11, damaging 15% of the harvest. Overall, 2009 was a compressed harvest with little uniformity but good to very good overall quality for big red wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, with slightly higher than normal alcohol levels. White wines generally had higher sugars/lower acids as a result of the hot summer.
Cool spring temperatures with some rain led to 2-weeks-later-than-normal bud break. The summer was average to slightly below average in terms of temperatures, resulting in veraison occurring one week late. Harvest was 10-14 days later than normal, but summer and early fall were dry, allowing for sugar and phenolic ripening with no loss of acid. Fruit flavors are less ripe, acid levels are slightly higher than normal. Overall, 2008 was a very good vintage across the board for most varieties. Reds will be lighter bodied, with purity of fruit and balance, with lighter bodied grapes like Cabernet franc and Merlot performing well. Whites will be clean, crisp and fresh, with Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc all performing well. Fine potential to age based upon the heightened acid levels.
Ideal spring temperatures lead to even, timely fruit set. Late spring was warmer than usual. Summer was uneven – overall averages of temperatures were slightly lower, but there were major heat spikes to shut the vine down. Sugar levels remained slightly lower than usual. Ideal, slightly cool but sunny and dry fall weather allowed for very long hang time when necessary. Flavor development, acid balance, phenolic ripeness all occurred without the threat of high sugars. 2007 is an excellent vintage for most grape varieties and regions, with ripeness to enjoy now but balance to allow for a decade of aging for the structured varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling and Syrah.
A mild, rainy spring led to slightly late, but uniform, fruit set. Summer was warm to hot and completely dry. Diurnal shift was strong, maintaining balance between the strong sugar development and acid presence. September cooled down considerably, with some humidity and rain, which slowed sugar development and allowed phenolic and flavor development to occur. October was dry and sunny with moderate temperatures, allowing longer hang time when needed. Very good to excellent vintage for both reds and whites, with some tannic structure/higher acid combinations pointing to strong ability to age for structure varieties. 120,000 tons harvested
A mild winter and warm spring led to relatively early and heavy fruit set, and a hot summer rapidly accelerated ripening. September and October cooled significantly, allowing for extended hang time and flavor development. Overall, the 2005 vintage produced highly concentrated and intensely colored red wines, along with ripe yet expressive white wines. 116,760 tons harvested
100,500 Tons Harvested. A hot growing season followed by a cool fall created a longer harvest, resulting in Washington wines with full, rich flavors. Despite winter damage to vines in certain areas across the state, the overall size of 2004 crop estimates were offset by an increase in bearing vineyard acres coming into production. Winemakers across the state reported small berry size with concentrated, quality fruit. Harvest began in some areas unusually early in August as a result of the warm growing season and early maturing fruit. The cool fall extended hang time with final berries picked in early November.
108,500 Tons Harvested
Washington winemakers and wine grape growers felt the 2003 vintage was among the best in history, particularly for red wine varieties. Hot weather hit late in the growing season, nudging the fruit to reach flavor and structural ripeness. Grape harvest began on September 2 in the state's warmest sites - Red Mountain and the Walla Walla Valley. Cool weather moved in on September 10th, allowing extra hang time and flavor development, which extended harvest through late October.
109,750 Tons Harvested
The 2002 grape harvest is defined by the quality. Lower yields per acre resulted in richer fruit flavors. The growing season began cool, then warm temperatures (mid to high 90s) put the crop ahead of schedule in some areas. Harvest began as early as September 9th, but as cool weather hit in late September, activity slowed down. Winemakers welcomed cool temperatures, allowing fruit to mature and intensify flavors. The majority of the state’s wine grapes were harvested by mid-October.
100,000 Tons Harvested
Syrah particularly stood out in the superior 2001 vintage. Temperatures during the 2001 growing season reached much warmer highs, which resulted in riper fruit. Temperatures moved forward harvest start dates by about 10 days earlier than average (September 1, 2001 the first grapes were picked near Benton City, on Red Mountain). Winemakers described white wine varieties as outstanding with lots of floral and fruit characteristics. Additionally, red grape varieties had softer tannins and bigger, more dominant flavors making them more approachable than in years past.
84,500 Tons Harvested
With seasonal and regional variations, this year was anything but typical. Hang time was ideal, allowing grape flavor maturity to catch up with the sugar accumulation. The result is an unprecedented quantity of dark, concentrated red wines and fresh, balanced whites. This was the first year that more red varieties were harvested in Washington than white.
65,000 Tons Harvested
Extended hang time during a very warm and dry September allowed for a crop with perfectly balanced levels of natural acid and rich, ripe flavors. Overall yield was down due to thinning of vines during the long, cool summer.
71,000 Tons Harvested
Early predictions peg this as the year when Washington State vineyards hit the top of the charts for both size and quality. Full, even ripening yielded balanced sugars and acids, while increased acreage augmented the total harvest.
62,000 Tons Harvested
Growers were delighted with this year's rebound. This vintage yielded almost twice the fruit as the previous harvest. Mild temperatures created even ripening.
34,000 Tons Harvested
An unusually harsh winter severely reduced the crop. Red varieties were affected most, but a mild spring and a hot summer nurtured good quality grapes.
62,000 Tons Harvested
Moderate weather extended the growing season and resulted in an optimal harvest of excellent quality.
44,000 Tons Harvested
A cool spring followed by a hot mid-summer led to an early harvest and lower crop levels than the previous year. Winemakers were enthusiastic about the quality of both red and white wines because of the concentrated flavors and intense varietal character of the fruit.
62,000 Tons Harvested
A warm finish to an unusually cool summer pushed the fruit to full ripeness. Mild winters the previous years and the maturing of several new vineyards combined to yield a record crop. Winemakers were excited most about white varieties, comparing them to the benchmark quality of 1983 and 1989.
50,000 Tons Harvested
The crop averaged just over 4 tons per acre and the grapes hung heavy and ripe in the early fall. Excellent color and low to moderate tannins were courtesy of a gentle winter, mild spring and very warm summer.
26,000 Tons Harvested
Severe winter storms gave way to a cool, wet spring, a dry summer and a warm harvest season. The result was dramatically reduced vineyard yields, and one of the state's best years for white wines with solid acid levels and full flavors.
38,000 Tons Harvested
Red wines proved especially fine after a growing season vineyard managers dream of: bud break in mid-April, bloom the second week in June and harvest the first week of September.
43,000 Tons Harvested
Critics called this Washington's best vintage of the 1980s, especially for reds. A winter freeze thinned vines a bit, reducing the size and number of grape clusters. The moderate growing season allowed slow and complete ripening of the fruit.
46,000 Tons Harvested
Consistently warm days followed a gentle, dry winter brought crop levels up and produced well-balanced sugars and acids. Red wines were particularly rich and supple.
46,000 Tons Harvested
A warmer than average growing season produced outstanding wines, particularly noticeable in the top-quality reds. Wines were packed with bright fruit and supple tannins and continue to deliver on the promise of long-term aging potential.