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Washington's Wine History

Washington's very young wine industry has grown by fits and starts. It has been born and died several deaths during the course of a history that spans less than two centuries.

Wine grape production as an actual industry got its start in Washington around the 1860s with the arrival of two settlers who imported European varieties into Walla Walla. However, the fledgling industry repeatedly failed to sink its roots into eastern Washington, as over the years a number of insurmountable obstacles lined up against it.

Mining booms in northern Idaho and Canada came and went bust, and the vineyards that were planted in Walla Walla to slake the miners' thirst prospered and then were subsequently abandoned when the hordes of speculators chased their fortunes elsewhere.

Water was another problem. Specifically, there wasn't any of it. In this semi-arid environment, before major irrigation projects could bring water to the vineyards, the vineyards had to be brought to the water, leaving most of eastern Washington off limits to grape cultivation. In the early 1900s, large-scale irrigation projects raised hopes that a thriving wine industry would soon follow. But the optimism was short-lived, put to bed in 1916 when Washington State adopted prohibition.

With the repeal in 1933, the slow process of rebuilding a wine industry in eastern Washington began once again. This time it was the American consumer's poor taste that stood in the way of success. Post-prohibition consumers had lost their taste for quality dry wines, favoring fortified, sweet dessert wines instead. Lacking demand for a quality product, Washington winemakers took the low road, casually combining European wine grapes with inferior Concord or labrusca grapes to arrive at a concoction they nonsensically labeled "burgundy."

It wasn't until 1965 that dry premium wines outsold dessert wines in Washington State for the first time. 

By the 1970s, thanks in part to the marketing efforts and successes of the California wine industry, the national scene for domestic wine drinking began to look more promising. Washington quietly rode along on California's wave, while focusing on matching individual vine types with suitable sites and continuously improving on quality. 

This emphasis paid off. In 2002, Wine Enthusiast named Washington "Wine Region of the Year," noting that "Washington Merlots, Cabernets and Syrahs walk a tightrope slung between New and Old World styles, combing sweet, plump, fleshy fruit with firm acids, sleek tannins and distinctive soil nuances. Delicious when young, they have the balance and structure to age for decades."

Today, Washington State is the nation's second largest wine producer--a distant second behind California.

Writing in the April 24, 2006 edition of The Wine Advocate, Pierre-Antoine Rovani encapsulated the rapid changes that have taken place in Washington's wine country over the past few decades: "Wineries, once shacks, garages and barns, are now state-of-the-art, often gravity-flow facilities. Winemaking knowledge has been honed, and lessons learned, so that today Washington is home to some of the most astute winemakers in the world," he writes. "The future is indeed bright for Washington's wine industry!"

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