Gregoire squeezes in tour of wineries

Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire gets some hands-on experience in the wine industry Friday afternoon at Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla as she sorts through a bin of grapes.

Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire gets some hands-on experience in the wine industry Friday afternoon at Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla as she sorts through a bin of grapes. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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WALLA WALLA — Gov. Chris Gregoire stepped out of the car at Tamarack Cellars on Friday prepared for a different kind of winery tour. One where she could get her hands dirty.

After a presentation in the Tri-Cities at the Richland site of Washington State University’s future Wine Science Center, the governor took some time on the commute to Walla Walla to change into tennis shoes for the intricate hands-on tour of about five wineries of varying sizes.

It wasn’t the first time Gregoire got to play a role in the process. But it was the first time she got to spend so much time with so many different operations, as she bounced from Tamarack through Five Star Cellars, àMaurice Cellars, Eleganté Cellars and Mannina Cellars.

“They’re all different sizes,” Gregoire said. “Each does it differently, and each does it differently for a reason.”

The visit for Gregoire, whose tenure as Washington’s highest ranking elected official is wrapping up, was a chance to see harvest and crush from the perspective of small business owners, said Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Executive Director Duane Wollmuth.

“We wanted her to be able to see the whole process of harvest, for one thing,” Wollmuth said as Gregoire helped sort merlot grapes on their way to the destemmer at Tamarack Cellars. “Seeing the small winery operations where the owner is also the winemaker, the marketing person — sort of the challenge and reward of being a winemaker in these hard economic times.”

Though Gregoire has just a little more than two months left in her term, she wanted to demonstrate her continued support.

Washington’s agriculture, including its wine, hasn’t exactly been a hard sell on her trade missions when she can get it to the mouths of foreign ambassadors. The challenges, she said, have been tariffs and quantity. Trade agreements in China and South Korea have been successful in boosting the amount of products overseas. Gregoire said though second in the U.S. for wine production, Washington doesn’t yet have the volume to satisfy the wine demand.

“We can’t right now export the amount that they’re ready to drink,” she said.

Washington and Walla Walla continue to distance themselves from other wine-producing regions of the country because of the industry’s dedication to quality over quantity and because of its collaborative nature, she said.

The Wine Science Center is just another example, she said. “Everybody’s working together, and that’s really what distinguishes us.”

During the presentation in Richland, Gregoire ceremonially signed in front of about 125 people $5 million that had been earmarked for the operation by the Legislature this year, reports said. That amount is part of $17 million raised for the project. That includes another $2 million announced Friday from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Tamarack owner and winemaker Ron Coleman said he was impressed by the governor’s interest as he guided her through the winery and invited her to punch down the grapes.

“She’s asking good questions,” Coleman said.

Gregoire said winemakers and consumers will be able to look back to 2012 as a banner year for the industry because of harvest.

“We’ll look back this year on that bottle and say it was historic,” she said.

Gregoire said Washington still has a way to go to making inroads in India for exports. But she said the state and wine industry are poised for growth. “The competition is amazing in the wine industry right now, and the opportunities are amazing.”

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