Wine grape growers set harvest record

By Linda Ashton, The Associated Press
Tuesday November 20, 2001

YAKIMA, Wash. — Washington wine grape growers are raising their glasses to a record harvest of 97,600 tons, up 9 percent from last year, largely because of more vines planted. 

Winemakers are also toasting the quality of the crop, expected to be the fourth excellent vintage in a row. 

“This is going to be one of the greatest vintages ever in Washington,” Ted Baseler, president of Woodinville-based Stimson Lane Vineyards and Estates, the state’s largest wine company, said Monday. 

“Because of the heat and the very long growing season, we’re probably going to have fruit similar to the 1998 harvest, which has garnered tremendous accolades.” 

Last year’s harvest of 90,000 tons of wine grapes was also a record. 

About 29,000 acres in the state are now planted in wine grapes, a 17 percent increase from 1999. 

Unlike a lot of Washington farmers suffering through an extended downturn, wine grape growers in this state find themselves in the enviable position of having demand exceed supply. 

Wineries here are attracting out-of-state investors, and Washington wines are drawing rave reviews. 

This week, Wine Enthusiast magazine named Washington the wine region of the year — “worthy of the world’s respect.” Last year, it was Australia. 

“To make a switch from a country to a state is a big leap of faith for the Enthusiast,” said Steve Burns, director of the Washington Wine Commission in Seattle. 

“It’s further recognition and validation for Washington’s coming of age.” 

And the designation has the potential to translate into sales by increasing awareness about Washington wine, particularly on the East Coast, said Duane Wollmuth, managing partner for the Three Rivers Winery in the Walla Walla Valley. 

Washington, the nation’s No. 2 wine producer behind California, has more than 170 wineries that produced more than 11 million gallons of wine last year. There were only 19 wineries in the state 20 years ago. 

Winemakers said this year will be a particularly good one for syrah, the third-most popular red variety grown here. 

“I think this is the fourth year in a row we’ve had very excellent years,” Wollmuth said. 

Syrah acreage has doubled in the state in the last couple of years, he said. 

“The real trend is for it to be one of the top varieties produced by the state,” he said. 

Fifty-two percent of the state’s wine grape crop is red, with merlot and cabernet sauvignon as the top varieties, and 48 percent is white wine grapes, dominated by chardonnay and riesling. 

“I think what we’re seeing is a maturation of Washington — emerging from a quality-wine status to a bona fide world-class producer of fine wines and doing so on a consistent basis,” Baseler said. 

Nature has something to do with four great vintages in a row, but so does improved farming. 

“I wouldn’t be so bold as to say we’re not going to have a bad vintage in the future — things do happen, such as particularly cool temperatures and rain during harvest,” Baseler said. 

But most of the crop now comes from newer vineyards with sophisticated development. 

The spacing and the trellising are improved, and growers have gotten better at finding the microclimates that have the best angle to the sun or protecting crops from early frost damage, he said. 

“We’re moving rapidly into minimizing the random (natural) problems we’ve had in the past,” Baseler said.