Washington Harvest Set to Crush Records

Cabernet leads other varieties as Chateau Ste. Michelle predicts 275,000 tons

by Peter Mitham
wine grape vineyard chateau ste michelle harvest washington
Chateau Ste. Michelle harvested Merlot from its Cold Creek Vineyard in mid-September. The winery predicts Washington state's wine grape harvest will exceed the previous record, set in 2014, by about 50,000 tons.
Prosser, Wash.—The biggest wine producer in the Northwest estimates that Washington state is on track for its biggest harvest, besting the estimate from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) by more than 20,000 tons.

WAWGG released its estimate of the 2016 crop in August, pegging it at 258,570 tons. The WAWGG estimate already was an increase from 222,000 tons crushed in 2015 and the record-setting 2014 crop measuring 227,000 tons.

This week, however, Chateau Ste. Michelle predicted a statewide harvest of 275,000 to 280,000 tons, on the strength of what it was receiving from its own vineyards and those of contract growers.

The official state-wide figures won’t be available until early 2017, but Ste. Michelle typically processes approximately two-thirds of the state’s total harvest.

With respect to specific varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon led the growth.

“We do our homework, and there’s been a lot of growth in a lot of varieties, but primarily Cabernet Sauvignon,” said Doug Gore, the executive vice president responsible for viticulture, winemaking and operations with Chateau Ste. Michelle. “We planted a lot of Cabernet, and all of our growers plant Cabernet, and we see a great future in that.”

But with such sudden growth, the big question (even if it has been building through steady plantings in the past few years) is where the fruit is going to go.

Chateau Ste. Michelle maintains that it plants conservatively, but in a year where incoming fruit is more than 20% above the previous year’s levels, can sales keep up?

Kent Waliser, director of vineyard operations at Sagemoor Vineyards LLC in Franklin, Wash., recently told Wines & Vines that no one should be complaining about lack of fruit this year,

“There just can’t be a winery out there this year that could even say, ‘I didn’t get enough of fill-in-the-blank,’” he said.

The real question facing vintners, however, is whether or not they’ll find themselves with too much product.

“The demand is there,” Gore counters, pointing to growth in both Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wines as well as red blends.

Moreover, it’s happening at prices of more than $10 per bottle.

“Probably north of $15, too, as far as that goes,” he quipped. “We’re definitely not the sub-premium category.…In Washington, our bar starts quite a bit higher than that as far as quality and pricing.”

Chicago, Ill.-based market-research firm IRI reports that off-premise sales of Washington wines from $10-$14.99 increased 23% and those priced $15-$19.99 increased 10% in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2016 in multiple-outlet and convenience stores. Among red wines Cabernet is king, but red blends are performing exceptionally well.

Despite a higher bar than many low-cost regions, Washington is where quality, price and margins collide. The arrival of producers from California as well as Canada’s Aquilini family—not to mention Constellation Brands Inc. through its recent acquisition from Charles Smith—point to the fact.

“We can do Cabernet every day, great quality, fair price, as well, probably as good or better than most areas,” Gore told Wines & Vines. “It’s a real exciting time for us in Washington.”

The growth in Washington’s production this year is also notable because it outpaces that of many other jurisdictions.

Southern Oregon University’s annual vineyard and winery census reported a 2015 harvest in Oregon of 84,949 tons. Assuming a 5% increase in volumes, Oregon vineyards will exceed 90,000 tons this year.

Conversations with growers indicate a general sense of modest increases, something Ryan Pennington, communications director for Chateau Ste. Michelle, confirms based on its own holdings in Oregon.

“It’s up, but not the bumper crop we’re seeing in Washington,” he said.

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