KENNEWICK — The consumer favorite Cabernet Sauvignon edged its way to the top of Washington’s wine grape production last year.
Additional tons of the red variety, along with other wine grapes grown in the state, helped Washington farmers harvest yet another record crop last year.
About 210,000 tons of wine grapes were harvested in 2013, up 12 percent from the previous year’s record harvest, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s a feat that comes as no surprise since Washington’s wine industry is in a growth mode, with many wineries upping wine production, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
And that increased production can’t happen without more vines being planted and current vines reaching full production, she said. Washington, with about 800 licensed wineries, is the second-largest U.S. producer of premium wines.
“Wine grapes are Washington’s third most valuable fruit crop, so the continued growth of the industry, as demonstrated in these new numbers, is good news for the entire state,” Bud Hover, state agriculture director, said in an email to the Herald.
“A robust wine industry means more jobs, more revenue and let’s not forget the recognition that comes from having many award-winning wineries right here in Washington,” he said.
The wine industry’s economic impact in Washington was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2011, according to the state wine commission. And the value of the state’s wine grapes has risen, reaching $1,110 per ton for all varieties last year. That’s up 7 percent from the previous year.
It’s an exciting time for the state’s wine industry, said Michaela Baltasar, the wine commission’s communications director. “We are just seeing this increased demand and more people making wine and existing wineries growing what they are making,” she said.
Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington, along with other wines, has been getting top grades from wine critics and publications, Baltasar said. And others outside of the state are recognizing the potential of Washington’s wine industry, she said.
Aquilini Properties, best known for owning a National Hockey League team, as well as other businesses including blueberry and cranberry farms in Canada and Sunnyside’s Aquilini Dairy, bought 670 acres of undeveloped Red Mountain land at a recent auction.
And one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries, Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., announced plans to open a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused winery using grapes from there.
Consumer demand is driving the industry to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, said Scharlau.
“We do virtually all varieties everywhere,” she said. “But Cab in certain areas, we are really dialing it in.”
Focusing on “King Cab”
The “fruity boldness” of Cabernet Sauvignon has made it a favorite with consumers, said Paul Champoux, owner/manager of Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. About 140 acres of Champoux’s 200 are red varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon at the top.
“Cabernet Sauvignon, it grows well here and I know how to grow it well,” said Champoux, who started out in the wine industry in 1979.
Cabernet Sauvignon production grew by 19 percent in the state, up to 42,600 tons of wine grapes, according to the USDA data. The value of the grapes also increased to an average of $1,440 per ton.
Cabernet Sauvignon surpassed Chardonnay, a white variety that has in general been at the top of the state’s production since 1993.
Todd Newhouse, Upland Vineyards general manager, is anticipating continued growth in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Syrah and Merlot, in the next five years.
Upland Vineyards, on Snipes Mountain and also near Grandview, grows a fair amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, although Chardonnay and Riesling are its top varieties. They also have added more Syrah in recent years.
But of all the grapes, there is more demand than supply for Cabernet Sauvignon, said Newhouse, chairman of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Cabernet Sauvignon needs plenty of heat that Washington’s growing areas including the Horse Heaven Hills, the Wahluke Slope and Red Mountain can provide, Champoux said.
“Cabernet needs its sunshine, and Eastern Washington gives you plenty of that most of the time,” he said.
Still a place for everything
Production of red varieties surpassed white varieties for a second year in a row, according to the USDA.
But the state also grows phenomenal Chardonnay and Riesling grapes as well, Champoux said. “Our reputation is growing and more people want more,” he said. “We need to expand our quantities.”
And most varieties saw higher production last year when compared to previous years.
Chardonnay slipped to the state’s second largest variety at 40,500 tons, but still saw a 10 percent increase from 2012. It’s average price grew to $916 per ton.
Third was White Riesling at 40,200 tons, up 10 percent, and fourth was Merlot at 36,000 tons, an increase of 4 percent.
Newhouse said he expects to see the demand for Chardonnay and Riesling stay stable after growing in recent years. The demand just isn’t going away.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ plantings of Riesling from 2009 and 2010 are coming of age and entering full production, said Kevin Corliss, the company’s vice president of vineyards. And they are still adding more Cabernet Sauvignon and red varieties.
There is still strong demand for Chardonnay, but Corliss said their supply is in balance with that demand.
Growers and winemakers are testing other varieties to find out which ones will make the cut.
For example, Petit Verdot and Mourvedre were grown in too small of quantities five years ago for production to be reported. Now, Petit Verdot is at 1,200 tons, up 200 tons from the previous year. And Mourvedre is at 800 tons.
Overall, the state’s wine grape growers expect new acres to begin producing this year and vines that produced a little bit last year to yield more of a full crop, Corliss said.
And so far this winter, grape vines have fared well with little damage, he said.
On Snipes Mountain, Newhouse said they had a couple close calls when temperatures were just a couple degrees away from vine damage. But overall it looks good, and a cold snap should help get rid of some pests.
“I’m really optimistic for this next year,” he said.