This seems a timely moment to lift a glass and toast a rising star in the state’s economy – the Washington wine industry.
Even during the recession and two harsh winters in a row (2009 and 2010) that slammed Eastern Washington vineyards, the wine industry continued to expand. Today, according to a new study, its value to the state economy has grown almost three times from what it was just five years ago – a period that overlaps the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
According to the study, conducted for the Washington State Wine Commission by a California wine-industry consulting firm, Washington’s wine industry contributed $8.6 billion to the state’s economy in 2011, compared with $3 billion in 2007.
Today, the industry generates $656.6 million in tax revenues to state and local governments, compared with only $145 million in 2007. Almost 30,000 people are employed directly or indirectly by the industry – up from 19,000 jobs in 2006. Of the state’s 39 counties, 33 have at least one winery.
While there’s much to cheer in the study, the consultant identified some areas that could interfere with the industry realizing its full potential.
To meet growing worldwide demand for wine, more vineyards are needed. Eastern Washington, where most of the industry’s grapes are grown, has plenty of land for expansion – much of it planted in fruit trees. While some conversion to grapes is happening, hastening that depends to some extent on updating what the consultant called “the state’s complex water arrangements.”
Another problem is that state funding for viticulture research and training has been significantly cut back in recent years, the consultant notes – a reflection of state budget woes. But it’s important to educate the next generation of winemakers and to study such issues as water use and farming techniques best suited to the growing regions’ challenging climate.
A bright spot is the Wine Science Center and teaching vineyard at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus. The recently signed capital budget includes $5 million for that $23 million project, and the wine industry recently committed to $7.4 million. The state’s largest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, has pledged $1 million.
Washington is second only to California in wine production and number of wineries. But if it’s to keep growing – and getting better – it needs to conduct research and educate its up-and-coming winemakers.
State lawmakers, who tend to focus on aerospace and high-tech industries, shouldn’t forget that about nurturing the state’s wine industry. And state residents can do their part – by buying Washington wines and encouraging restaurants they patronize to offer them.