While the quality of grapes and winemaking in Washington state remain world-class, the global glut of wine continues to cut into the industry’s bottom line.
Consumers stand to benefit, whenever shelter-in-place restrictions and pandemic-affected spending allow.
“The Washington grape market is suffering from a structural imbalance between supply and demand that will likely require substantial vineyard removals to rectify,” wine economist Christopher Bitter said during this year’s Washington Winegrowers Association convention in Kennewick.
The state’s 59,000 acres of vineyards are an indication of growth the Washington State Wine Commission has pointed to in recent years.
Bitter, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a doctorate in economic geography from the University of Arizona, suggested Washington’s 400-plus growers remove a combined 8,500 acres of vines to address the projected oversupply of 41,250 tons of grapes each year.
Either that or the wineries must find ways to increase demand and move 15.5 million cases. In 2019, Washington wineries shipped 12.6 million cases.
Smaller producers across the state enjoyed 5 percent growth in sales last year. However, Bitter said shipments by industry leader Chateau Ste. Michelle and its sister wineries in Washington have declined by 900,000 cases since 2016.
“Whenever the Chateau catches a bit of a cold, it affects things in this state pretty dramatically,” said Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, who has been making wine in Washington since 1977.
Bitter’s data indicates Washington wineries have two vintages worth of unsold inventory — 31 million cases.
“That’s a big hole to dig out of,” Bitter said.
He suggested resetting the vineyard acreage to 2013 levels.
That’s when 50,000 acres of vines yielded 210,000 tons, which were harvested by 564 wineries. Contrast that to 2016 when the state amassed a record-setting 270,000 tons of wine grapes, and 2018 when 261,000 tons came into cellars.
“We should have seen this coming four years ago,” said Dick Boushey, a grower based in Grandview.
“In 2016 and 2017, there was a lot of fruit that didn’t get picked, and people just proceeded to plant more. As growers, you’ve got to look out for yourself. Know the market. Read the Nielsen reports. You’ve got too much invested to rely on only a few customers.”
Last year, growers harvested 201,000 tons, but Bitter estimated that growers ripened 270,000 tons of grapes.
About 30 percent of the fruit was not picked because of economic decisions or the unusually early hard freeze Oct. 10-11 that resulted in something rarely seen in Washington — frost taint.
Producers cited fears of wines with off aromas such as rose hips or vinyl as reasons for rejecting post-freeze grapes.
“It got ugly at the end with the frost and fruit not getting picked,” Boushey said. “Then some places couldn’t get people to help harvest.”
Mike Sauer, who began planting wine grapes at Red Willow Vineyard near Wapato in 1971, said he and his sons have reacted to the softening of the market by removing sections of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Riesling across their historic site. Some vines suffered from the gradual drain of leaf roll, but not all of them.
“These are definitely tough times,” Sauer said. “We’ve taken out not quite 10 percent of our vineyards. It’s hard to see some of these real old vineyards coming out, and not just ours. We’ve taken out the old ’73 block this past winter. We’ve taken out the ’85 block, a ’79 block of Cab, an ’85 block of Cab Franc, an old block of Riesling planted in ’82.”
According to the annual grape report, Cabernet Sauvignon is still king in Washington at 53,740 tons, accounting for 27 percent of the total wine grape harvest, but there was a decrease of 20,660 tons. Chardonnay was the second-most harvested grape last year at 33,540 tons, or 17 percent of the total.
“People love to blame the millennials, but that’s neither correct nor fair,” Griffin said. “There’s just been a change in focus in the wine industry, so as a small, family winery there was already a challenge. And then came the lockdown.”
Last year when grapes came in the cellar door, Washington growers charged an average of $1,315 per ton — an 8 percent increase over the previous year — but in many cases that didn’t make up for steep losses.
There would seem to be more competition than ever among winemakers for grapes in Washington.
In 2012, there were 760 wineries.
Last fall, Washington issued its 1,000th license, which belongs to brothers Jens and TJ Hansen, a pair of Air Force veterans who opened Uva Furem Winery near Kent. Overall, 90 percent of the wineries in the state are viewed as “small and independent,” bottling fewer than 5,000 cases.
That’s not Griffin, whose winery produces 60,000 cases a year. He worries about the pandemic’s long-term damage on sales because of the shutdown, social distancing restrictions on tasting rooms, closing of restaurants, massive unemployment and the economy’s deep decline.
“The reality is that we can’t sustain the amount of wine we made last year because we’re not able to absorb the brunt of missing out on what probably will amount to half a year of sales,” Griffin said. “And I think that will be true across the board.”
Tasting rooms throughout the state closed for two months, resulting in staff either being furloughed or laid off. In some cases, award-winning winemakers went from an annual salary of $80,000 or more to part-time hourly workers because wine sales were not able to support their paychecks.
Meanwhile, the Port of Kennewick announced this spring that it has begun to work on the update of its Historic Waterfront District Master Plan, which includes the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village.
Bartholomew Winery and Monarcha Winery opened their tasting rooms a stone’s throw from the Columbia River in 2018. Cave B Estate Winery and Gordon Estate Winery opened early this year but ribbon-cutting ceremonies are on hold. Both multi-generation producers provided curbside pickups.
Heading into the pandemic, direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales, already were a lifeblood for many wineries, particularly smaller producers. In 2019, Bitter reported that DTC sales for Washington wineries increased by 10 percent. Support by wine club members sustained wineries during the shelter-in-place restrictions.
And Bitter’s presentation, available via his website at VinEconomics.com, noted Ste. Michelle sales have “stabilized” after declines in 2017 and 2018.
Nearly 40 percent of the state’s recent harvest reduction has been attributed to Riesling’s loss of popularity and that explains some of Ste. Michelle’s inventory issues because it is the world’s largest producer of this white German grape.
Many Washington wines made from the 2019 vintage will go on to earn international acclaim. Odds are that a few will earn a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100. Last year, Washington placed two reds in the magazine’s top 50 and seven in its 100 Top Values, a group paced by Ste. Michelle with three wines on that price-sensitive list.
“People in Seattle still drink a lot of French and Italian wine,” Boushey said. “Those countries have had a pretty good deal shipping their wines in so cheaply but try getting our wine into Europe.
“You don’t need to compromise,” he added. “In Washington, we have a great wine at every price point.”
Griffin agreed. “I think it’s fair to say that the overall standard of quality has come up to a pretty exciting level. There used to be some particularly ‘not good’ producers, but I can’t think of anybody at this point, so by broad and general strokes Washington wine is excellent.”
To assist with marketing and consumer education, Washington winemakers, growers and scientists have a number of proposed American Viticultural Areas pending federal government approval.
Three are in the Tri-City area — Candy Mountain, White Bluffs and Goose Gap. Public commenting on the Candy Mountain petition closed Oct. 18, 2019, nearly two months ahead of that for the proposed Royal Slope AVA near Othello.
The petition page was last updated Feb. 28 by the Department of Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, so further delays in the official establishment of any AVA could be significant in the wake of Covid-19.
And this spring, the Cascadia International Wine Competition, the largest international judging of wine staged in the Pacific Northwest, was postponed and moved from the Tri-Cities to the Lewis-Clark Valley after the economic downturn led to the temporary closure of the hosting hotel.
“Most of us in the industry will weather this,” Boushey said. “And the grapes will still need to be farmed. They are not going to walk away.”
Eric Degerman owns and operates GreatNorthwestWine.com, an award-winning website that covers the Pacific Northwest wine industry.
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