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Wine in Washington
The 1960s saw the flowering of a new winemaking region in a very unexpected locale: Washington State, USA. Though near latitudes (46-47 degrees) that encompass two of the great French wine regions, Bordeaux (44.5 degrees) and Burgundy (47 degrees), Washington's vineyards also experience cold and sometimes rainy falls and winters. Less than ideal conditions for grapes at the end of their ripening season.
But because of their far north latitude, those vineyards benefit from up to two more hours of sunlight per day (17.4 hours) during the growing season than does Northern California. And, fortunately, east of the Cascade mountains rainfall is modest, averaging less than 10 inches per year. Low precipitation and humidity help minimize mildew and diseases ruinous to vines and their fruit.
The climate in Washington's wine-grape growing sub-regions varies substantially from the mild Puget Sound to the scorching Tri-Cities where summertime temperatures often hover above 100F (23.5C) The former, though, doesn't enjoy the 'rain shadow' effect created by the Cascades and only 1% of the state's output is achieved there.
The remaining 99% east of the Cascades grows in seven of the state's eight official appellations, among which are Yakima, Walla Walla and the Columbia Gorge.
First planted in 1825 by French, German and Italian immigrants the region languished for over a century and a half. But commercial production ramped up in the mid-1980s to the point that its production is now second only to California's, harvesting 116,760 tons on over 30,000 acres. Combined, Washington's wineries produce 16.5 million gallons per year.
The growers here had to develop new techniques to support the fruit in the near-desert conditions of eastern Washington. And adapt they did, with eye-dropper irrigation which gives the vines just enough water to stay healthy, but not enough to pump up the grapes and dilute their flavor. Fortunately, the Snake, Columbia and Yakima rivers provide ample water through an extensive natural aqueduct system.
Some winters their efforts are challenged when the Columbia Valley's cold sends vines dormant. The growers respond by planting vines on their own roots rather rootstock, which allows it to produce a crop the following year.
They benefit from nature as well, though. Thanks to geologic developments in the Pasco Basin, large deposits of silt and sandy loam help produce the drainage essential to proper wine grape growing.
All the traditional varietals grow here, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese reds. Whites also cover the bases with Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc in abundance. The whites in the region yield 30% more tonnage per acre than reds, with Riesling leading the pack at 6.2.
The Merlot produced in the Columbia Valley stands out, thanks to the more 50 degree temperature swing from the 90-degree days to the 40-45 degree nights. Those hot days ensure that grapes ripen slowly without producing excessive sugar, while the cool nights help produce abundant acidity.
Thanks to their creativity and hard work, the industry is now a $2.4 billion powerhouse employing more than 11,000 people at more than 360 wineries, up from a bare 19 in 1981. And it shows no signs of slowing down.