Washington Grapegrowers Look Ahead

Report from WAWGG: Smaller 2015 crop leaves tank space open as exports surge

by Peter Mitham
washington wawgg new vineyard
New plantings are prevalent in the Red Mountain grapegrowing region of Washington state, where Duckhorn and Aquilini Investment Group are establishing wine businesses.
Kennewick, Wash.—The numbers are in for the 2015 harvest, but Washington state wineries and grapegrowers are already starting to prune vines in anticipation of the 2016 harvest—and ongoing expansion.

The annual gathering of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) saw more than 2,000 registrants and 150 exhibitors come together to meet suppliers and get a read on where the industry is headed following a light and early harvest.

Cabernet Sauvignon: state grape?
The Washington State Wine Commission and National Agricultural Statistics Service issued their annual wine grape report Feb. 8, indicating that the 2015 crop was down 2%. The drop from 227,000 tons in 2014 to 222,000 tons in 2015 was driven by a 10,000-ton decline in white wine varieties. Riesling alone was down 6,400 tons, while the slack was picked up by Cabernet Sauvignon, which increased 5,200 tons.

The gain once more crowned Cabernet Sauvignon the king of Washington state grapes, a title it first earned in 2013 as it overtook Riesling on the back of aggressive plantings that have continued to accelerate.

Cabernet Sauvignon has been the variety of choice for new projects on Red Mountain and elsewhere, with the key limitation to growth in volumes this past season being dry, hot weather that was widely expected to put a dent in crop volumes, though the impact wasn’t known until this week.

Open tank space
While new plantings might have been expected to boost this year’s crush, industry sources told Wines & Vines this week that tank vacancies are averaging 11%.

On the trade show floor at WAWGG, this translated into fewer inquiries for tanks even as tools to manage the year’s fruit and the potential for high alcohol levels became hot topics.

One exhibitor commented that the concentration of flavors in smaller berries and the potential for higher alcohols from sugar-rich fruit may not short wine production, however. As Washington State University viticulture professor Markus Keller quipped in 2009, water is the answer when grapes produce too concentrated a juice: “Dilution is the solution.”

Yet the lack of inquiries is likely a temporary lull; one WAWGG exhibitor expects tank orders to surge in 2017 as the 2016 harvest restores confidence and delivers a clear and present need for capacity.

Moreover, development plans continue.

Industry continues to expand

Red Mountain, for example, is awash in young vines as Duckhorn and the Aquilini family develop their properties. (Aquilini plans to develop its remaining 390 acres this spring, primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon and lesser amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.)

In addition, producers such as Frichette Winery are moving ahead with facilities to bring production in-house—work that’s buoying prospects for builders.

The range of activity underscores ongoing optimism in the industry, which continues to develop and make headway—even in foreign markets.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, whose presence looms large in the state, boosted exports by 30% last year, according to Brett Scallan, vice-president responsible for marketing with the state’s largest vintner.

While characterizing the home front as “under attack, with imports coming in”—primarily from countries whose wines have become more affordable as the dollar has strengthened in world markets—Scallan said wineries that are willing to work with foreign markets are seeing success, with Germany and Scandinavia being the largest export markets after Canada.

Canada, in particular, is attractive because its wine consumers’ preferences mirror those of Americans, and the state-controlled retail system masks the effect of exchange rates, allowing greater opportunities to achieve the prices needed to achieve profitability.

The growth of the industry, complete with new entrants, is also prompting the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers to review its mandate and even its name.

During the Wednesday morning business session, association chair Todd Newhouse presented WAWGG members with the association’s new statement of core principles and tipped the potential for a change in its name and visual identity to reflect the newly defined mission.

The former vision statement pledged WAWGG to triple the economic impact of the industry by 2020 and defined its mission as being to “cultivate a positive business environment to grow the Washington wine industry.”

An assessment of the association’s needs and a review of its core principles means the association now envisions “a thriving industry—recognized globally—for quality wines and vineyards, supported by exceptional education and leading edge research.” This will be expressed as the association pursues a mission “to serve as a synergistic leader and unifying voice—through advocacy and education—for growers, vintners, partners and policymakers.”

Newhouse said the newly defined mission represents “a conscious shift in understanding” of WAWGG’s role in the industry and the breadth of stakeholders it serves. This will drive a potential change in name for the association, he said, ensuring any new moniker would be “mission driven.”

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