Washington wine grape crop crushes record

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Washington farmers grew another record-breaking crop of wine grapes this year as wineries push to fill the demand created by a growing U.S. thirst.

The harvest is up 16 percent from last year's record.

Estimates put the total amount of wine grapes crushed at almost 218,000 tons, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture won't release the final crush number until the first quarter of 2014.

The total amount of wine grapes, including white and red varieties, was up by about 30 tons from last year, when wineries crushed about 188,000 tons of Washington wine grapes. And last year's crop was 32 percent larger than it was in 2011, according to the USDA.

The growth comes as no surprise because of the additional acres that have been planted and because newer acres are coming into full production, Scharlau said.

"It's the direction that the industry has been planning to go," she said.

Officials from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates -- which uses about two-thirds of all the wine grapes grown in Washington -- have said the company aims to grow to meet the rising demand created by increased wine consumption in the U.S.

Washington had 43,000 acres of wine grapes planted as of last year, according to the USDA. Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, told the Herald last year that another 10,000 acres "would be a nice start."

It's important for the growth to happen in incremental, planned steps so growers are meeting what wineries need, Scharlau said.

The wine industry's state economic impact was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2011, according to a 2012 report prepared for the Washington State Wine Commission.

The wine industry and related businesses provided about 30,000 jobs statewide, with more than 8,500 of those jobs in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, according to the report.

Benton County wineries produce the most wine in the state, at about 11 million gallons, according to the report.

Norm McKibben, who manages Seven Hills and Les Collines vineyards near Walla Walla, said that this year was the sort that farmers hope for, but rarely get.

"The year couldn't have been more perfect for us," said McKibben, who finished harvest Nov. 5.

The warmth grape vines received this year will help improve the taste of this year's vintage, he said. It's the warmest year they have had since 2003.

The heat sped up the development of sugars, McKibben said. Then, a week of cool weather in Eastern Washington before harvest helped slow down development.

With the heat, it was no problem this year to get the grapes to the point where there was no sign of any green, McKibben said.

Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' vice president of vineyards, said that period in late September when the temperatures cooled helped with their ability to process the grapes.

The maturity of the grapes was excellent, with good ripeness across all of the varieties, Corliss said.

While fermentation is ongoing, Corliss said winemaking staff are saying that they are pleased with the quality and the quantity of key varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling this year.

Ste. Michelle owns such wineries as Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie, Northstar and Spring Valley. It also co-owns Col Solare on Red Mountain.

"We expect to have a really beautiful vintage," Corliss said.

Some of the white wines from this year's crop will be out shortly after Jan. 1, Corliss said. It will take 18 to 24 months before the 2013 red wines will be available.

But consumers can enjoy the red vintages from 2011 and 2012 in the meantime, he said.

Overall, Scharlau said she's hearing a lot about the quality of this year's wine grapes.

"It is going to end up being an amazingly fabulous vintage of Washington wine," Scharlau said.

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