History of Wine in Washington State

Second in the United States only to California in premium wine production, the state of Washington has come such a long way so rapidly that even most residents have no idea that the wines made in their own backyard generate millions of dollars in sales each year and are highly respected around the world. Right along with the wine business, Washington wine tourism has expanded quickly and now more than two-million visitors each year enjoy the unique charms of the state’s distinctive wine country regions.

History of Washington Wine

In 1825, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a fur trading post just north of the Columbia River at Ft. Vancouver. This is the site where grapes were first planted in Washington State. The 1850’s saw homesteaders coming from the east via the Oregon Trail planting grapes in both the Puget Sound region as well as several areas in eastern Washington. Wine was made primarily for home use.

Like many areas in the U.S., Washington’s wine industry was severely curtailed by Prohibition in 1919. It would be 1933 before Prohibition was repealed and although commercial production returned it was small, slow-growing and focused on low-quality Concord varietals in the cool, wet western half of the state. It was not until the 1960s that hobby winemakers began experimenting in earnest with higher-quality European vitis vinifera varietals in the drier, warmer valleys of eastern Washington.

In the late 1970s a hobbyist named Gary Figgins turned the wine world on its ear with a Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon judged to be among the very finest in the country. His Leonetti Cellar wines along with other small family producers like Woodward Canyon, Quilceda Creek, Preston, Hogue, L’Ecole, and more, put eastern Washington squarely on the map for noble reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Washington Wine Production

Washington has nine officially recognized appellations (American Viticultural Areas) that began with the Yakima Valley AVA in 1983. Since then eight other appellations have joined, most of them in the eastern half of the state. Only one region, the Puget Sound AVA, is west of the Cascade mountain range and only produces about 1% of the state’s wines.

In 2002 and again in 2003, Washington winery Quilceda Creek was singled out for critical acclaim so rare, it has only happened to a handful of wines in the world. Famed critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave the 2002 and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from Quilceda Creek a perfect 100-point score. Many other Washington wines also score consistently high marks from Parker and other critics across the spectrum. Now firmly established as a wine-growing region that can compete with any on the world stage, the future for Washington wines has never looked brighter.

In 2008, Washington had more than 550 wineries in operation producing over twenty varietals. Leading reds include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. Leading whites include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Viognier. About 57% of the wines produced in 2007 were red versus about 43% white.