But wine producers here also have a message for all those complacent vintners down in Napa and Sonoma: Don’t look in the rearview mirror.
Washington’s winemaking production has more than doubled in the past decade, and the expansion may be accelerating, wine researchers and growers say, for an unlikely sounding reason: drought.
Water shortages plague a vast area of the West, including Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee last month declared a statewide drought emergency. But grapes require far less water than other crops. And the problem runs much deeper in California, where the drought, exacerbated by climate change, has entered its fourth year and farmers, including some in wine-producing areas in central California, are dealing with cuts of 25 percent or more in their water allotments.
At the same time, warmer winters in northern climes — from Oregon, which is also gripped by drought, up through British Columbia — are creating new farming terrain, ripe for grape cultivation. Old-fashioned pressures of supply, demand and return on investment are doing the rest.
“All this used to be apples,” said Dick Boushey, gesturing out from the front of his house a half-hour south of Yakima, where a brown, tilled field of 24 acres was cleared of apple trees last winter. Mr. Boushey’s team was planting new cabernet sauvignon vines over the Memorial Day weekend, and when that final former apple field on his 275-acre spread goes to grapes, his transition from apple farmer to wine-grape grower will be complete.
When Mr. Boushey, 64, began farming here in the Yakima River Valley in the 1970s, the place was still called Apple Valley. But hiring apple pickers got harder over the years, he said, as aging farmworkers no longer wanted to climb ladders, and price pressures made it hard to turn a profit some years. These days drought has accelerated the switch in crops. “Wine grapes require half the water,” he said.
Since 2010, wine-grape acreage in Washington has increased by 22 percent, according to state figures, to about 50,000 acres. At the same time, acreage for many other historically important crops — from potatoes to wheat — has been flat or in decline.
The money has followed that trend: E. & J. Gallo, a giant wine company based in Modesto, Calif., made its first foray into Washington in 2012, when it bought its first winery outside California. Growers and wineries have also set up shop in places like Horse Heaven Hills, a high ridge on the north bank on the Columbia River, carving out a geographic designation that is fetching premium prices for its cabernet sauvignons. Walla Walla, once a sleepy town in Washington’s wheat belt, has become a tourist watering hole for sippers of syrah.
“Napa, while it is certainly world renowned, is a victim of its own success in the price of land and the price of grapes,” said Carol C. Reber, the chief marketing officer at Duckhorn Wine Company, based in St. Helena, Calif. Duckhorn bought its first 20 acres in Washington in 2013, and last summer planted its first vines, mostly cabernet and a little merlot. The company produced its first Washington wine last fall, a cabernet sauvignon, with grapes purchased from other growers. Ms. Reber said the company would consider buying more land in Washington “if opportunity comes along.”
The drought is also different here. Unlike in California, total precipitation across much of Washington and Oregon has been close to normal over the past year. But because of higher-than-average temperatures last winter, more of that precipitation fell as rain than as snow. That has thrown the irrigation systems, which depend on snow melt runoff, into a crisis of adaptation and planning. The Roza Irrigation District, for example, which supplies much of the Yakima Valley, including Mr. Boushey’s place, went dry last month — a temporary shutdown aimed at saving water for later in the summer.
But wine grapes also do best in dry summer conditions, which pushes the plants to send sugar into the grapes and not into the canopy of leaves. State agricultural officials have projected financial losses this year of $1.2 billion, with much of that pain concentrated here in the Yakima basin. But those losses will be tied largely to other plants: Wine grapes, because of their drought hardiness and dry summer cycles, are expected to skate through just fine.
“Of all the crops, I’m worried less about the wine grapes than any other,” said Markus Keller, a professor of viticulture at Washington State University. “Wine’s expansion will continue. If anything, it will accelerate.”
The Yakima basin also embarked on a path of water management years ago that environmentalists have praised as a model of conservation and that wine-grape growers say creates a more stable water outlook. The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which was agreed upon in 2011 and is in the early stages of being carried out, brought together farmers, municipalities and the Yakama Nation Indian tribe around a system intended to make sure that farmers who depend on the Yakima River for irrigation could coexist with the fish in the river through water storage, conservation and improved passageways for fish heading upstream to spawn.
“The Yakima Plan shows how we move forward through the reality ofclimate change and ensure reliable water supplies and healthy rivers,” said Michael Garrity, who focuses on Puget Sound and the Columbia basin atAmerican Rivers, a national conservation group. “It’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Some Washington wineries said there was more demand for their products than the grapes grown in the state could currently provide, which has forced them to reach out to other places for grapes … like California.
Washington’s biggest winemaker, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, started buying California grapes in 2012, mainly for its lower-cost wines. Some of those sell for $8 to $10 a bottle under the Red Diamond brand, with California clearly stamped on the label. The company’s Two Vines brand, also in that price range, started using California grapes last year.
“Demand for Washington-grown grapes has outpaced production,” said Lynda R. Eller, a spokeswoman for Ste. Michelle.