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Cabernet Dominates Vineyard Growth in Washington State

Washington Syrah has grown by a notable 47 percent to 4,500 acres
by Gary Werner
November 13, 2017

Vineyard plantings in Washington have grown by more than 26 percent during the past six years, according to a new report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Statewide wine grape cultivation now exceeds 55,000 acres, with most production centered in the Yakima Valley AVA (15,900 acres) and the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (14,900 acres).

Red varieties claim 65 percent of total state plantings, up from a 57-percent share at the time of the last official report in 2011. Among reds, Syrah and Merlot have shown notable growth, but Cabernet Sauvignon clearly dominates recent development.

“Cabernet represents the lion’s share of plantings at Precept Wine during the past two or three years,” said Mike Williamson, the company COO and CFO. “And from what we can see, that’s the case across Washington State as a whole.”

NASS reported that Cabernet Sauvignon has grown by a remarkable 81 percent in Washington since 2011. Plantings now cover 18,608 acres, which is nearly the combined total of all white varieties grown in the state (at 19,593 acres).

Butch Milbrandt of Milbrandt Vineyards said this expansion is simply a reflection of demand. “Cabernet definitely has been getting the most attention from growers,” he said, “but growers generally don’t plant uncontracted acres. So these numbers are a function of winery contracts, which in turn point to consumer demand.”

Complementing market demand is field experience, said Kevin Corliss, the vice president of vineyard operations at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “We are rolling into a second generation for Washington’s wine industry,” he said, “and we have learned a tremendous amount about how and where to grow Cabernet here. So the quality of that fruit and of those wines has been increasing by leaps and bounds.”

Other Washington reds represent much smaller crops than does Cabernet, but the NASS report showed Merlot expanding by 10 percent since 2011 to more than 9,000 acres. Additionally, Washington Syrah has grown by a notable 47 percent to 4,500 acres.

“Syrah has benefited from some very good winemaking and praise from national critics,” said Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards. “But these numbers likely reflect the ability of Syrah to do well across all of our AVAs, and the fact that it blends so well with other reds.”

Williamson at Precept agrees. “I believe we are seeing Syrah plantings increase in Washington because there is a constant demand from consumers for rich, fruit-forward, premium red blends.“

White varieties have contracted as a percentage of Washington’s total plantings—from 43 percent to 35 percent since 2011—but the actual acreage planted to whites has remained level. Chardonnay has held steady at 7,700 acres, and historic favorite Riesling has maintained about 6,500 acres. Meanwhile, Pinot Gris has expanded by 35 percent from an admittedly small base to 2,100 acres. Corliss at Ste. Michelle said this boost, again, reflects consumer demand. “And it does really well in a lot of sites across Washington,” he said. “So it’s a grower-friendly variety.”

As regards the overall state growth of more than 26 percent, Corliss said, “It’s been a good run. And we are doing our best to work in a safe and sane manner—making sure that we have clean plants and we are putting them in the best sites. We all want our growers to be successful, since everyone’s success here is built upon theirs.”

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Washington Vineyard Acreage Report 2017 23
USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service - Northwest Regional Field Office

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