Washington State wine region is located in the northwest corner of the United States. A relatively young wine industry, which is now the second largest (behind California) wine producer in the USA. With approximately 20,235 hectares of vines planted, Washington State has ideal geography and climate conditions for growing premium vinifera wine varietals.
Primarily grown on their own root stocks, which support healthier plants, the regions vines produce fruit of consistently high quality, resulting in strong vintages year after year. While wine grape growers in Washington focus primarily on Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec - the region also produces a wide range of other expressive white and red varietals and wines.
The earliest grape vines planted in Washington State were at Fort Vancouver in 1825 by traders working for the Hudson's Bay Company but it is not known for sure if wine was produced from these vines. The first people who definitely produced wines were German and Italian immigrants who planted their wine grapes in Washington during the 1860s and 1870s.
Washington was one of the first states to usher in the start of Prohibition, going dry in 1917 and shutting down most of the state's wine production. Following the end of Prohibition, Washington's young wine industry was based primarily on fortified sweet wine production made from the Vitis Labrusca varietal Concord.
Viticultural research began in Washington State in 1937, when Dr. Walter Clore was appointed assistant horticulturist at WSU’s Irrigated and Agriculture Research Extension Center in Prosser. Walter Clore is recognized as the ‘father’ of Washington’s wine industry, introducing research with trials of American, European and French hybrid varietals throughout the state. Then there was the introduction of Cinsault grapes by Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla region, which in the 1950s and 1960s, was the precursor of the state's biggest wineries - Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Winery being founded. And Grenache was one of the first Vitis vinifera grapes to be successfully vinified in the Yakima Valley. The 1970s ushered in a period of expansion, with early vineyards being planted in the Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla and Red Mountain areas.
The AVA’s within Washington State:
Yakima Valley, Est. 1983: - Walla Walla Valley, Est. 1984: - Columbia Valley, Est. 1984: - Puget Sound, Est. 1995: - Red Mountain, Est. 2001: - Columbia Gorge, Est. 2004: - Horse Heaven Hills, Est. 2005: - Wahluke Slope, Est. 2006: - Rattlesnake Hills, Est. 2006: - Snipes Mountain, Est. 2009: - Lake Chelan, Est. 2009: - Naches Heights, Est. 2011: - Ancient Lakes, Est. 2012.
Following the 60 Minutes TV episode in 1991 on the so-called ‘French Paradox’, American consumption of red wine dramatically increased, with Merlot in particular proving to be very popular. The Washington Wine Commission made the marketing of the state's Merlot a focus, putting Washington in prime position to capitalize on the Merlot craze.
While there are some viticultural activities in the cooler, wetter western half of the state, the majority 99.9% of wine production takes place in the shrub-prairie eastern side. The rain shadow created by the Cascade Mountains keeps the wet, marine influence of the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean from affecting the dry, desert-like conditions of Eastern Washington. Leaving the Columbia River Basin with around 200mm of annual rain fall, making irrigation and water rights of utmost importance to the regions wine industry. Viticulture in the state is also influenced by long sunlight hours, which on average, two more hours a day than in California during the growing season, and the regions consistent temperatures.
This creates the arid desert-like conditions with a more continental climate in Eastern Washington and increases the roles of water - most notably the Walla Walla, Yakima, Snake and Columbia River - in the region's viticulture. In addition to providing vital irrigation, the rivers also help to moderate temperatures during the winter which is prone to severe frosts coming from the Arctic. In winter, overnight temperatures in the wine growing regions of Eastern Washington can drop to as low as -26°C. A sudden drop to sub-zero temperatures can make the water in a vine's wood canopy quickly freeze which can cause the vine to literally burst open. The severity of these conditions can wreak havoc on a year's harvest, as was the case in the Walla Walla AVA with the big winter freezes of 1996 and 2003.
The topsoil found throughout the Columbia Valley is mostly sandy and stone-studded on top of basalt-based soil foundation created by persistent lava. These sandy loam vineyard soils create a nearly hostile environment for the phylloxera louse, which may be one of the reasons why the phylloxera epidemic has not ravaged the Washington wine industry. The state's northerly location above the 46th parallel north allows Washington's major wine growing regions to experience 17 hours of sunlight in the summer - two more hours of sunlight during the peak growing season than what California sees further south.
Grape growing is the fourth most important crop in the state - behind apples, pears and cherries. The Washington wine industry is an important contributor to the long term preservation of Washington agriculture. The industry is committed to sustainable agricultural practices and conservation of water resources. Washington is also home to wineries that are certified organic and bio-dynamic. Washington States hand-crafted wines are receiving acclaim from critics nationally and internationally for consistent high quality. With wine exports going to over 40 countries around the world from the 850+ wineries located in the state.