CASHMERE, Wash. – Washington’s wine industry is in a strong growth mode – and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
So says Vicky Scharlau, a person who is perfectly positioned to know. Scharlau is the longtime executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. In this role, she works for more than 300 grape growers across Washington and keeps her thumb on the pulse of the industry.
Based on a crop estimate last August, Scharlau estimates Washington now has nearly 55,000 acres of wine grapes, up 10 percent from just five years ago. And she believes we’re only at the beginning of a big growth curve.
“I think we have everything we need to double,” Scharlau told Great Northwest Wine. “I think we have access to land. I think the demand is there. I think more and more of the world’s wineries are recognizing that Washington state has something special. And we have growers and soil that grow amazing wines.”
During the grape growers’ recent annual convention in Kennewick, we sat down with Scharlau to talk about her arrival to the Washington wine industry and where she believes it is heading.
Here’s the interview.
From Wisconsin to Washington
Scharlau grew up on a dairy farm in the upper Midwest and seemed to know from an early age that she would live her life in agriculture. After earning a bachelor’s degree in agriculture journalism and agriculture economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Scharlau took at job as a marketing specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
By 1982, she headed west, landing a job as the public information officer for the Washington Department of Agriculture. She quickly began to realize just how different West Coast agriculture is.
“We never talked about irrigated or dryland farming in the Midwest,” she said. “Either it rained or it didn’t. The novelty of irrigation and what that meant for production and for farming and for everything surrounding specialty crops was so new and such a challenge, that’s what started me down that pathway of staying in agriculture once I got to Washington.”
Within two years, Scharlau moved to the Washington Apple Commission, an industry that was – and remains – the face of Washington agriculture.
“In every country we went to representing Washington apples, that was the icon. If you said Washington, most people – especially in Southeast Asia – would recognize the red apple, and they knew Washington meant apples or tree fruit. Washington meant Washington state. It didn’t mean Washington, D.C.”
After a decade with the apple commission, Scharlau left to start her own consulting company and also spent a year working for the state Horticulture Association. By 1999, she was hired as executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG, pronounced “wag”).
Scharlau leads grape growers
Scharlau had moved to the Wenatchee area while working for the apple commission, so when she began with WAWGG, it was suggested that she move to the lower Yakima Valley or the Tri-Cities. She resisted, saying that she was in the geographical center of the state, a great location for going to meetings either in Seattle or in the Tri-Cities. Plus, she thought a wine industry could show up in North Central Washington.
“I said, ‘Just wait. There will be a time when you have both grapes and wineries north of I-90.’ They laughed at me,” she said. “Look where we are now.”
In fact, about 60 wineries are in such North Central Washington communities as Wenatchee, Lake Chelan, Quincy and Leavenworth, and several hundred acres of vineyards have been planted.
Ultimately, the WAWGG office in the Tri-Cities was shuttered, and the entire organization was operated out of Scharlau’s office in Cashmere – where it remains today.
Each February, WAWGG stages its annual convention. During Scharlau’s time with the group, it has been either in the Tri-Cities or Yakima. During her first year on the job, it took place at the Pasco Red Lion Inn with just a couple hundred members of the industry. Today, the WAWGG convention takes over the Three Rivers Convention Center and Toyota Center in Kennewick for three days and attracts upward of 2,500 people from all sides of the wine industry.
However, Scharlau said WAWGG must evolve because it is the only organization to encompass all areas of the wine industry.
“We’re needing to start matching what the industry is doing,” she said. “There has been a real merging of growers of wineries. No longer do you have people over here who grow grapes and people over here on the other side who make wine.”
She sees WAWGG changing into an organization that, more than ever, works to meet the needs of the entire wine industry, working closely with the Washington State Wine Commission, of course.
“We’ve started to morph into both sides of the fence,” she said. “There really isn’t a clear line between what’s a grower and what’s a winery. We’re having to bridge that gap. That will require some industry input on what the association looks like going forward.”
Washington’s wine industry growth potential
Figuring out how much the Washington wine industry can grow is a fairly simple equation for Scharlau. It comes down to the availability of land, water, labor and consumers.
“Can you get a piece of land that has the available water,” she said. “Is it a warm site? Do you have access to those Cab clones that you’re looking for? Can you find them to be certified clean (plant material) on top of that? And when you answer all those questions as ‘Yes,’ then if you’re not making your own wine, do you have a contract for those grapes?”
In Washington, wine grapes don’t need a lot of water. Vines are rather frugal in their thirst, but they need some. In fact, without irrigation, Washington wouldn’t have much of a wine industry – or most crops, Scharlau said.
“There really wouldn’t be specialty crops here,” she said. “You’d certainly have dryland wheat. You’d have more beans and peas. But when it comes to tree fruit, when it comes to row crops, when it comes to seed crops – all of that requires irrigated agriculture.”
Even with these seemingly considerable hurdles, Scharlau is confident in significant growth because the demand is there for more and more Washington wine. Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, has said more than once that he believes the state has basically run out of red wine grapes. Because Ste. Michelle uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington, its needs drive the state wine industry.
So it comes down to labor, something that is less and less available for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the national conversation about immigration. Scharlau said that is one reason nearly the entire Washington wine grape industry is mechanically harvested, and she stands firmly behind the practice.
“We believe that 98 to 99 percent of all the wine grapes in Washington are mechanically harvested,” Scharlau said. “We have been able to show in tastings that there is no difference in terms of taste or quality between mechanical harvest and hand picking.”
She is quick to concede that for some winemakers, hand harvesting is important for perception, even while it is much more expensive and time consuming.
“The challenge then comes in that it is far more expensive, and access to labor to do that is getting to the point of being nonexistent,” she said.
Wineries and vineyards nearly have to keep workers employed year-round to ensure they will have the crews they need when it’s time to pick. Scharlau said the wine grape industry also is dwarfed by tree fruits, which must be hand harvested
Scharlau said she is confident the Washington wine industry is well positioned to overcome these hurdles, and she won’t be surprised when the state’s acreage hits 100,000.