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Winemaking in Washington

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 28, 2011

When discussing American wines, most people automatically think about the State of California. California is where the majority of American wines are produced and California does rank as first in quantity of wine produced in the United States. It is important to realize that other areas exist within the United States for the production of wine. It is also important to realize that these additional areas can produce wines that meet or exceed the quality of wines found in California. The State of Washington of the Pacific Northwest region is one such area.

Until recently, wines produced in Washington were considered to be sub-par. The main reason for this was that even though quality Vinifera grapes were grown in Washington, wineries would not use these quality grapes to produce quality wines. Pioneers involved with the Washington wine industry recognized this problem and attempted to fix it. Unfortunately, the efforts of Washington wine pioneers either failed or were ignored. Things began to change for Washington State in the late 1960s. It was during this time that enologists took on the challenges of proving that the State of Washington was capable of producing quality wines. The end result was success in that today the State of Washington ranks second in total amount of wine produced. With respect to quality, wines produced in Washington rival other American as well as European regions.

Grape growing in Washington traces its roots back to 1872 when Lambert Evans planted the first grapevines on Stretch Island of the Puget Sound. After this development not much happened with the progress of the vine until 1890. It was at this time that Adam Eckert migrated to the Puget Sound and began work on development of the vine. Eckert was responsible for breeding a black labrusca grape variety that he named Island Belle. The Island Belle grape proved to be popular and spread throughout additional islands of the Puget Sound. This trend continued until the mid 1900s. During this time expansion of agricultural land was ushered in with technological developments including irrigation systems. Also during this time large juice plants were built in the Yakima, Grandview and Prosser areas. Ultimately the Island Belle variety was displaced by east coast juicing grapes such as the Concord.

Professional wineries were not in operation within the State of Washington before 1933. Immediately after prohibition, Charles Somers started the first winery in the State of Washington. This winery was known as the St. Charles winery. Shortly after the formation of St. Charles, wine building fever hit the State of Washington and by 1937 forty-two wineries were in operation. Out of these various wineries, a particular winery known as Upland deserves special attention. A man by the name of William Bridgman started the Upland winery in 1934. Bridgman took the time to study California and European vineyards and came to the conclusion that the Yakima valley was ideal for grape growing and wine making. The abundance of sunshine and a similar geographical location to that of France convinced Bridgman that high quality Vinifera varieties could be grown in Washington. Bridgman even went as far as hiring a German winemaker and then worked on producing Johannisberg Riesling and Cabernet wines. However, the great effort put into the winery did not match the outcome of the wine. Many of the wines produced by Bridgman were poorly made and did not sell well.

One unfortunate development for winemaking in Washington was the introduction of specific liquor control laws at Repeal. These laws established a monopoly of state run liquor stores. This effectively discouraged most people from buying Washington table wines. The lack of public interest during this time combined with the ability for wineries to sell directly to taverns led to the production of average desert wines such as port or sherry. By 1970 the wine laws had changed to allow the sale of wine to privately owned stores. Also during this time forward thinking wineries worked to start a wine research program at the State University of Washington. However, with each of these positive changes Washington wines still did not have a reputation for quality.

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In the mid 1960s many wineries in Washington were growing high quality grapes in their vineyards. Yet even with the availability of these fine grapes, wineries were still producing sub standard wines. The main reason for this was the fact that wineries were blending these fine grapes with Concord grapes. The objective of the wineries was to produce port and burgundy wines. It was during this time that the great American wine historian Leon Adams met with representatives of the American Wine Growers association. During Mr. Adams meeting, it was suggested that Washington wineries look for assistance with the goal of producing high quality wines. This conversation resulted in opening a dialog with Andre Tchelistcheff, a noted Californian enologist. Tchelistcheff visited Washington and found most wine to be of sub-par quality. However, in the tasting of a particular Gewurztraminer, Tchelistcheff was surprised and concluded that Washington could indeed produce high quality wines. Tchelistcheff accepted the challenge and began working with Washington wineries to implement procedures for quality winemaking. In the end the results of Tchelistcheff's work were applauded in that wine connoisseurs praised the new Washington wines.

With the many positive changes introduced in the late 1970s, the wine industry in Washington continued to grow. Today, the wine industry of Washington State is dominated by two Seattle based companies. Stimson Lane and Corus Brands account for over 70 percent of wine production in the State of Washington. Smaller wineries found in Washington's various AVAs make up the rest. Grape variety preferences have also changed over time. Historically white grape varieties dominated Washington wine production but today red wines account for 57 percent of output.

Looking back at Washington's wine history it is clear that Washington has been successful in the development of its wine industry. This can be seen in the growth of a thriving industry that today produces truly high quality wines.

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