Taste Washington is the largest wine tasting I’ve ever attended except one. That tasting happened in San Francisco over 30 years ago. It was held in a huge lavish hotel ballroom where wines from every major wine growing region at the time filled hundreds of tables. The amount of glassware used at the event is mind boggling.
With under 60 wineries, Washington was a speck on the world’s wine map at that time. But, my oh my, how things have changed! Today, there are over 890 wineries in this dynamic fruit growing region. On average, a new winery opens every 30 days, making the number of wineries in Washington second behind California.
The first recorded winery operating in Washington was founded by an immigrant from Baden, Germany, in 1874 in East Wenatchee. When John Galler first moved to Washington, he made a living trapping with the Indians before settling down to farm and ferment. He had an orchard and planted 20 acres of grapes, producing wines for some 36 years before retiring.
In the 1900s, the wine industry was based on native American grapes such as the concord which took to the climate of Eastern Washington quite well. Grandview Winery and the National Wine Company or Nawico for short, were the largest along with Seattle’s Pommerelle and Upland winery out of Sunnyside.
There were also wineries popping up in Selah, Vancouver, Vaughn, Wenatchee, Bellevue, Lake Stevens, Edmonds, and Dockton to name a few. Even little Grapeview had one, Stretch Island Winery, operating from 1935 until 1947.
Except for the three larger wineries, most of the smaller community wineries made wine with whatever fruit they could get their hands on. Apples, cherries, pears, blackberries, gooseberries, loganberries and currants were abundant. One adventurous vintner even made a melon wine.
Grape varieties used were the American Island Belle, Campbell Early, and Concord. And Muscat, Alicante Bouchet and Zinfandel vines were brought by immigrants. These wines were very much like the wine coolers of the early 1980s. Sweet, fruity and with not even a hint of complexity.
The change from Concord to Cabernet was gradual. It started in 1937 at the Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center. They hired Dr. Walter Clore. His job was to evaluate the apple irrigation project and other fruits, including grapes, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.
A trial block of about 30 grape varieties was planted with both American and European varieties. This grew over the next six years to 45 American, 71 European and a dozen hybrid varieties. By 1974, over 300 varieties had been established at the research center.
Today, over 350 wine grape growers have over 40 varietals planted on some 50,000 acres all across Washington State. The latest record harvest year was 2014 with 227,000 tons of vinifera grapes harvested. And those 890 wineries produced 16 million cases of wine from all those grapes.
In 2015, Washington’s wine grape harvest totaled 222,000 tons, down 2 percent from the record harvest of 2014. Many grape growers attributed the decrease to unusually warm weather, which resulted in a much smaller berry size. The upside of this is more concentrated aromas and flavors.
There are thirteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), as recognized and defined by the United States Treasury Department; Alcohol & Tobacco Taxes & Trade Bureau in Washington State.
The first to be recognized was Yakima Valley in 1983. In 1984, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley joined the Club. Eleven years later, Puget Sound joined the ranks.
The turn of the century brought Red Mountain into the fold, followed by Columbia Gorge (2004), Horse Heaven Hills (2005), Rattlesnake Hills and Wahluke Slope in 2006 and Snipes Mountain in 2009. Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes were added in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Washington’s average sixteen hours per day of summer sunlight and alluvial soils produce some of the best growing conditions for vinifera grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon was the top producing red variety at 47,400 tons. Riesling was ranked second, at 44,100 tons. The latest economic impact numbers for the wine industry is $4.8 billion in 2013.
No wonder Taste Washington is the largest single region wine event today. There are so many wines from so many varieties to choose from. There are still tickets available for Sunday’s Grand Tasting. This is a great opportunity to learn more about Washington’s wineries and what delicious bites pair well with them. For more information, TasteWashington.org
Another great tasting event is coming up. Yakima has their Spring Barrel Tasting right around the corner. This is an opportunity to delve into some of the wineries and vineyards in Washington’s oldest AVA on April 23rd and 24th. Tasting from the barrel is a unique experience. Many wineries have local food pairings, live music and festivities. More learning opportunities! More fun!
And right here on the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island wineries have scheduled a special event for April 23 and 24. You’ll taste locally made cheeses with locally made wine. More info at www.bainbridgewineries.com