By Heather Bradshaw
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Washington State Wine Commission, a marketing, communications and research organization that represents every licensed winery and every wine grape grower in the state. In 1987, early industry visionaries saw the need to bring wine growers and wineries together under a statewide marketing board – but even they couldn’t have predicted the explosive growth and widespread acclaim Washington state wine has achieved since.
The wine commission has grown from a relatively small operation to a full-time staff of 12 that executes more than 40 local, national and international programs throughout the year. A board comprised of geographically diverse wineries and grape growers of different sizes oversees the staff.
“Our programs and events either focus on bringing high level trade and media here to experience Washington state wine country in person—or we take our wines and message out on the road,” explained Steve Warner, president of Washington State Wine. “We aim to ‘influence the influencers’ to make a bigger splash around the country and internationally.”
In addition to marketing and communications programs, viticulture and enology research has always been a major focus for the wine commission. The industry took a leap forward a few years ago when it committed $7.4 million—paid through grower and winery assessments—to help build a portion of Washington State University’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center at the WSU Tri-Cities campus in Richland. The 40,000-square-foot teaching and research facility contains some of the most advanced technologies and equipment to provide students and scientists with tools needed to solve viticulture and enology challenges specific to Washington growing conditions.
All of the important marketing and research work has been simultaneous with the growth of the industry from 65 wineries and fewer than 10,000 acres of vineyards in 1987, to more than 900 wineries and more than 50,000 acres of vineyards today. It hasn’t been an easy road, as winegrowers and winemakers have had to overcome major hurdles along the way.
“In the mid-eighties, Red Mountain was home to about five vineyards totaling about 250 acres,” said longtime winegrower Jim Holmes of Red Mountain’s Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. “At that time water was available only from deep wells which was severely limited because of the parallel demands of urban growth, Native American treaty rights, environmental concerns and growing agricultural requirements. A few years ago, Red Mountain was successful in obtaining Yakima River Irrigation water, which opened about 2,000 acres for expansion. As a result, nearly all of the mountain is planted to vineyards, with ownership from around the world.”
As the number of wineries and vineyards has grown the past 30 years – so has wine tourism. John Bookwalter’s family moved to the Tri-Cities area more than 40 years ago and started the J. Bookwalter Winery in 1983. He says he has seen tourism grow exponentially, and expects it to only continue.
“There are more wineries to choose from, dozens more overnight and dining options in the area and generally more wine-related services available to the wine tourist that make their experiences easier to conduct and more fulfilling,” Bookwalter said. “I believe you will continue to see tremendous growth in the overall Washington wine industry and wine tourism as primarily U.S. wine drinkers look for alternatives to Napa and Sonoma.”
The media has taken notice, too. Since the modern-day wine industry began, critics have taken notice of the high-quality wine being produced in Washington state – and it only continues to improve every year. According to Wine Spectator data, for the past eight years in a row Washington has had a higher average of 90+ point wines when compared to other leading wine regions, for a lower price.
“By the mid-90s the wine press started to look at Washington as a serious quality contender, but most of the nation still thought Washington wine came from somewhere near Washington, D.C.,” Holmes recalled. “Our reputation evolved during the 2000s and recently, growth and recognition have very positive as wine sales continue to grow nationwide and internationally.”
Judging by what the wine industry has accomplished since the wine commission was founded in 1987 – it’s safe to say the future is bright for the next 30 years, and beyond.
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Heather Bradshaw is the communications director for the Washington State Wine.
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