Washington Sees Growth in Wine Industry

The Associated Press
Friday, October 6, 2006; 4:28 AM

PROSSER, Wash. -- The Miller family has grown wine grapes in central Washington's Yakima Valley since the 1960s, fostering business with some of the biggest and most well-known wineries in the region. That relationship is about to change somewhat _ the Millers are venturing into the wine business on their own. The family is breaking ground on its Airfield Estates Winery this week with plans to open by spring.

Its foray into winemaking exemplifies the tremendous growth in Washington's wine industry in recent years _ much of it coming as growers attempt to pry control of the vintage away from large, corporate wineries and cash in on their crops themselves.

In 1981, just 19 wineries produced an estimated 2 million gallons of wine in Washington state. Today, the number of wineries tops 400. They are expected to produce more than 18 million gallons in 2006.

"I'm hearing more and more growers who are looking, or have already gone, to the wine side of the industry," said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, a promotional agency funded by member fees.

"It's an opportunity for them to kind of test their skills on the winemaking side. And it's an opportunity for them to capitalize on the fact that they are growing premier wine grapes, and try their own hand at making world-class wines with those grapes," she said.

For their part, the Millers are taking baby steps. Of the 3,400 tons they expect to harvest this year, winemaker Marcus Miller will crush just 30 tons for Airfield Estates.

Miller, 28, earned an MBA and worked in other career fields for several years before returning to the family farm.

"Then I got here and got really excited about it. I decided to stay," said Miller, who has since completed an enology degree and served as an apprentice to another central Washington vintner.

Washington growers anticipate harvesting a record 120,000 tons of grapes this year, an increase of 9 percent, thanks largely to warm spring conditions and an increase in the number of vineyard acres to more than 30,000.

Red and white varieties are closely split, 57 percent red plantings to 43 percent white.

The Millers held an official groundbreaking _ gold shovels and all _ for the new winery in August to avoid the busy harvest season.

Next door, construction is under way on Olsen Estates Winery, a project initiated by two brothers who turned to farming in 1972, decades after their grandfather immigrated to the United States from Norway and planted the family's first fruit trees in 1908.

Wine grapes now comprise 800 of their 2,500 acres.

"When your fruit disappears in that bottle and nobody knows who you are, you get no attention for your vineyard," Larry Olsen said, referring to the large wineries that have bought Olsen Bros. grapes for years.

"We thought producing our own high-end wine would really shine a light on our vineyard," he said.

The Olsens are keeping their production relatively small, knowing they can't compete with the region's largest wineries. They hope to sell 2,500 cases in the first year, increasing to about 12,000 cases annually.

The project hasn't been cheap: Winery construction alone is costing $1.6 million, plus equipment and other expenses.

Already, the quality of Washington wines is becoming more recognized by industry insiders. In its October issue, Wine & Spirits magazine named five Washington merlots among its top 12, though none were grown in the Yakima Valley.

"We've been focusing _ at least in the Yakima Valley _ not on producing ultra-premium wines," Marcus Miller said. "What we're seeing is a change in that direction."

© 2006 The Associated Press