By Elsie Puig for TCAJoB
A leisurely drive along Sunset Drive introduces you to the Red Mountain Viticulture Area, where the rural backcountry of Benton City with its the desolate shrub-steppe hillside boasts some of the state’s best soil for wine growing.
Kiona Vineyards and Winery pioneered the Red Mountain AVA in 1975, long before it received its official AVA designation in 2001. Since then, top-notch grape growers and wineries have claimed the soil along the scenic drive leading up Red Mountain.
It is the final weekend of February. There are still several weeks before the warm weather months herald in a busy stream of outside visitors to tasting rooms across the area.
Enthusiasts exalting the benefits of Washington wines usually start with a lesson in geology. Washington’s terroir ─ the organic relationship of land and climate ─ has catapulted the state to viticulture stardom.
The Great Missoula Floods that washed over Eastern Washington deposited intricate layers of sand, silt and gravel. Underneath this sandy low-nutrient topsoil is thick volcanic basalt bedrock that makes the soil exquisitely ripe for growing quality grapes.
The unique geology of the Columbia Valley coupled with the temperate desert climate, year-round sunshine, irrigation from the Columbia River and varying sub-climates have made the area perfect for planting grapes like Malbec, Lemberger and Syrah, as well as the more traditional Cabernet and Merlot. It also grows standout white varietals like Riesling and Chardonnay.
“It’s both a blessing and a curse,” said Ben Simons, wine blogger and marketing director for Thomas O’Neil Cellars in Richland. “Washington is in the enviable position to be able to grow almost every variety well. While it is awesome to be able to do that, we don’t really have a reputation built on the success of a single grape.”
But the quality of the grapes is still being noticed.
“You have a lot more consistent vintages out of Washington than you do in a lot of places,” said Keith Pilgrim, winemaker and owner of Terra Blanca Estate Vineyards.
Pilgrim had been growing Red Mountain grapes for 20 years, when he decided to open Terra Blanca Estate Vineyards on the cusp of the Red Mountain ridge, the warmest wine-growing area in the state.
The price-to-quality ratio of Washington wines is also unbeatable.
“We have demonstrated a huge value proposition an all our price points, compared to similar wines from around the world,” said Ryan Pennington, Public Relations Director for the Washington State Wine Commission.
Nobody doubts the quality of the wines, as Pilgrim and many winemaker and grape growers in the area can attest to, but the question now becomes: Can the local wine industry become a forceful economic driver and a world-class wine destination?
All evidence points to yes.
According to the Washington State Wine Commission the state is experiencing an unparalleled wave of expansion ─ the number of wineries has more than tripled in the past ten years ─ with new wineries opening up every year.
In 2002, there were 200 wineries in the state. Now the state boasts more than 740 wineries.
“There has been quite a bit of growth pretty quickly,” said Pilgrim. “Things kind of sat for a few years after we started. But a lot of the growth has come in the past eight or ten years.”
And there is still a lot more room for growth, Pilgrim added.
As the second-largest wine producer in the U.S., Washington produces 12 million cases from 40,000 acres of vineyards — 99 percent are in Eastern Washington. The state still lags far behind California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but it’s recognition as a wine destination is taking hold.
Early on, it was uncommon to have visitors from outside the general geographic area — and when you did, they were generally from Northwestern states like Oregon, Idaho or Montana, Pilgrim said.
“Now we probably get 15 to 20 percent of guests who have flown into Washington and have come especially for wine,” he said.
Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, said that 17 years ago when she started working for the bureau, there were only a handful of wineries. Now Tri-Cities residents can visit 160 wineries that are all within an hour’s drive.
The only sales numbers available are from an economic impact study done in 2006 by MKF Research, LLC for the state wine commission. At the time, winery sales were $437.64 million,retail and restaurant sales were $135.782 million and distributor sales were $37.34 million.
With exceptions like Chateau Ste. Michelle, the majority of Washington wines are small boutique wine producers focused on the premium wine market.
Mike Hogue, a veteran grape farmer in Prosser, said sales tanked starting in 2008 in most categories of wine. Hogue said the recession pulled down prices on many labels, and when you have a lot of deals on quality wines, it hurts those in the premium wine market, which respond by slowing production. That makes the premium wines harder to find.
Hogue, a grape grower in the Prosser area, started Hogue Cellars in 1982. In 2001, he sold Hogue Cellars and five years later, founded Mercer Estates. His grapes are highly sought after, used by Chateau Ste. Michelle and various other wineries.
“I’m confident sales are starting to inch back up,” said Hogue.
Smasne Cellars, owned by renowned winemaker Robert Smasne of Grandview, Wash, saw sales grow by 27 percent growth in 2011. He expects that trend to continue through 2012. Smasne Cellars also has a tasting room in Woodinville.
The recession might have affected sales, but evidence of a healthy wine industry is shown in the confidence and growth of new wineries.
Hamilton Cellars, one of the first wineries to open within Richland city limits, has only been open for a little over a year, but their wine club has already attracted 300 members and their Bona Vita and Malbec varietals have garnered silver, gold and bronze medals.
The same can be said about Cooper Winery on Red Mountain. Both wineries have built their brands on the star quality of winemaker Charlie Hoppes and attention to customer service.
“Our business model is a little different than most,” said Stacie Hamilton, who owns Hamilton Cellars with her husband Russ Hamilton. “We have geared this for locals. We have an awful lot of events for wine club members. We’re extremely service oriented and everybody that comes in is greeted by name.”
There is still work to be done if the Columbia Valley wine region wants to become a world-class wine destination.
The general consensus among winery owners and visitors to wine country is that the area lacks the high-end amenities, such as five-star hotels and restaurants, to support the growing wine industry and to entice visitors to come back.
“We’re challenged right now,” said Pilgrim. “We need more high-end places to stay, we need more restaurants, and the Tri-Cities is overwhelmingly dominated by chain restaurants.”
He hears it all the time from out of town visitors.
Krystal Ellingson, owner of Speak Dog, a dog-training company, and her husband Tyler Ellingson, who owns Mow Services, are wine club members at Bookwalter Winery in Richland and Alexandria Nicole in Prosser. Krystal Ellingson, who used to live in California, said she’d take this wine region over Napa Valley any day.
“It is a slower pace here, you are not rushed through wine tastings and the quality of customer service is a lot higher,” she said. “The atmosphere is more relaxed and you don’t have to pay $23 for wine tasting.”
Allison Rhoades, 31, and Shannon Anderson, 26, both from Kennewick love the area’s wineries, they have been wine tasting through the Tri-Cities, Red Mountain, Prosser and Walla Walla.
Rhoades, who lived in the Bay Area of California, has been wine tasting several times through Napa Valley and Sonoma and says the experience is wholly different.
“As much as we like to name ourselves as wine country, we are still a bit undiscovered,” said Rhoades.
“Tourism can become of our biggest industries, a cash cow, but it feels like everything else needs to catch up,” said Anderson.
It is a sentiment shared by even the biggest Washington wine advocates.
Simons said wineries in the Tri-Cities really need a wine association similar to Yakima for promotion of our region. Simons, who moved from the Pasco from Texas in 2010, said he had many lucrative offers to start his career in Napa Valley wine country, but decided for Washington instead.
“Here are some fantastic wines being produced and the cost of living is much lower,” said Simons.
“The real issue is the tourism side of things, the closest thing to a wine destination is Walla Walla, and even there they have some infrastructure issues,” said Simons.
But there are some big projects in the horizon that will further anchor the local wine industry. The WSU Wine Science Center being developed in Richland and the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser scheduled to open in fall of 2013 have brought excitement to the local wine industry.
“I really feel we need to work on our vision as a community so we can become an internationally renowned wine region in 20 or 25 years,” said Watkins. “We have all the ingredients and all the natural resources working for us.”
The love for Washington wines and their grape is deeply rooted in everyone who works hard to bring this industry forward, from grape farmers to winemakers to winery owner, even to tasting room staff.
“We are fortunate to have such a great wine region, it rivals some of the best in the world,” said Smasne. “I, as a winemaker would not trade or wish I was making wine anywhere else in the world.”