Half a century ago, Washington’s biggest claims to fame were Sasquatch and the logging, maritime and aerospace industries.
But in 1967, the floodgates of commercial wine making opened here. Since then, the state has rapidly become a leading player in wine production and sales.
Today Washington is the second-largest producer of premium wine in the country, with bottles sold in all 50 states and exported worldwide. The Washington State Wine Commission reports that we’re home to 900 wineries, more than 350 grape growers and 50,000 acres of vineyards – approximately the size of Napa Valley.
How exactly did the state come to harvest more than 200,000 tons of grapes annually? European settlers, the Prohibition era and a Napa Valley wine making legend all played a part.
Sowing the seeds of industry
It all began in 1825, when the Hudson’s Bay Company planted the state’s first grapes at Fort Vancouver.
European settlers continued to plant vinifera throughout the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, private winemakers were tapping runoff from the melting snowcaps of the Cascade Mountains for large-scale irrigation.
Modern-day Washingtonians living west of the Cascades might be surprised to learn just how conducive the state is to viticulture. But east of the mountains, where nearly all of the state’s wine grapes are grown, the conditions are ideal. Washington’s Columbia Valley, which sits at the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France, enjoys low rainfall (just 6 to 8 inches a year), sandy soils and almost two more hours of sunlight than California during the summer.
Curiously, the Prohibition era during the 1920s and 1930s helped seed the state’s wine industry. Although the alcohol ban obstructed grape production, it increased home winemaking. During 1934 and 1935, after Prohibition had ended, two Seattle wine companies emerged: the National Wine Company (NAWICO) and Pommerelle, which mainly produced fruit wines. By 1938, the state was home to 42 wineries.
The birth of commercialization
Flash forward to the 1960s, when the state’s commercial industry took root.
Washington State University’s Dr. Walter Clore, today considered the “father of Washington wine,” had made great strides in his research on growing American, European and hybrid grape varietals here. His painstaking studies lay the groundwork for Washington’s wide-scale production of fine wines.
In addition, American Wine Growers, the result of the marriage between NAWICO and Pommerelle, caught the eye of wine writer and historian Leon Adams. Adams, who thought that Washington vintners should begin making wine on a commercial scale, introduced American Wine Growers to legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, famed for Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyards.
Under Tchelistcheff’s guidance, American Wine Growers launched “Ste. Michelle” in Eastern Washington. In 1967, Ste. Michelle Vintners produced its first cabernet sauvignon.
With that vintage, the Washington state wine industry officially landed on the map. Fifty years later, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the No. 2 premium domestic wine sold in the U.S., with bottles available in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.
In 1976 Ste. Michelle Vintners built the Chateau in Woodinville. This was the start of today’s Woodinville Wine Country, which is now home to more than 100 tasting rooms.
The rise to world-class player
Today Washington viticulture is a $4.8 billion-plus industry and shows no signs of slowing down.
According to the Washington State Wine Commission, a new winery opens here almost every 30 days. More than 40 percent of the state’s grape vines were planted in the last decade alone. And according to Wine Spectator, compared with most major wine regions – including California, Oregon, France and Italy – Washington has the highest percentage of wines rated 90 points or higher while offering the lowest average cost per bottle.
The emergence of higher-education programs in regional winemaking is further evidence that the industry is playing for keeps. Aspiring Washington winemakers now can obtain two- and four-year degrees in the trade. And in 2015, Washington State University opened the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center, a world-class educational institution dedicated to the state’s grape and wine industries.
Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, takes great pride in how quickly Washington’s wine industry has grown.
“You think about the last 30 years when people used to snicker about Washington wines,” Baseler says. “Today they take them seriously.”