Early freeze, drop in demand lead to smallest harvest for Washington wine since 2012

By on April 26, 2020
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Owner/winemaker Mari Womack brought in the last lot of grapes from the 2019 harvest for Damsel Cellars on Oct. 22, 2019 in Woodinville, Wash. (Richard Duval Images)

Some of the world’s best wines from the 2019 vintage will come from Washington state, however there will be fewer total bottles produced as a result of last year’s reduced harvest.

Last month, the Washington State Wine Commission reported that the 2019 wine grape harvest was down 23 percent from the previous year. Decreased orders from winemakers, combined with an early freeze, led to only 201,000 tons crushed by the second-largest wine producing state in the U.S.

“Mother Nature served a series of unfortunate frost events throughout the state in early to mid-October,” Steve Warner, President of Washington Wine, stated in a news release. “Many winemakers and growers had already picked most or all of their fruit before the frosts, but for sites carrying higher yields, there was a good amount of fruit left unpicked due to concerns about frost damage.”

A worldwide decrease in wine consumption drove a chunk of that reduced demand. One example is reflected in California’s wine grape harvest, which fell by 8 percent compared with the record haul of 4.28 million tons from 2018 vintage. And yet the Golden State still crushed a whopping 3.92 million tons last year.

The Washington State Wine Commission’s annual Grape Production Report is driven by information provided by each winery. The last time there was a harvest similar in size to last year’s was in 2013 when there were 210,000 tons pulled in. In fact, last year’s crush was the smallest since 2012 when 188,000 tons were produced from what many critics and winemakers view as a classic vintage for Washington.

Average price per ton increases by 8% 

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Last fall, Washington growers hustled to bring in as much of their crop as possible ahead of frost events in the first half of October. (Richard Duval Images)

Based on the numbers, there would seem to be more competition for grapes in Washington. In 2012, there were 760 wineries. Last fall, Washington issued its 1,000th license, which belongs to brothers Jens and TJ Hansen of Uva Furem Winery in Maple Valley.

When the crop came in the door, Washington growers charged an average of $1,315 per ton — an 8% increase over the previous year. 

Overall, the growing season was slightly cooler when compared with recent years, but on par with historical 20-year averages. That would seem to point toward more age-worthy red wines and food-friendly whites.

“Although a smaller harvest, farmers reported ultra-high quality in the fruit that did come in,” Warner said. “The cooler temperatures equated to lower overall sugar accumulation and higher acidities, which has a lot of winemakers excited about the 2019 vintage.”

Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay lead way

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The harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon for Leonetti Cellar takes place under the watchful eye of viticulturist Jason Magnaghi on Oct. 9, 2019. (Richard Duval Images)

According to the grape report, Cabernet Sauvignon is still king in Washington at 53,740 tons or 27% of the total. A year ago, the stats for “King Cab” were 74,400 tons and 29% of the total, which reflects a decrease of 20,660 tons. In California’s famous Napa Valley, there was 78,146 tons of Cab harvested in 2019, which reflects a 12% decrease from the previous vintage.

Chardonnay was the second-most harvested grape in Washington last year at 33,540 tons or 17% of the total. In 2018, the figures were 41,500 tons and 16% of the harvest. In California’s Sonoma County, there were 71,083 tons of Chardonnay harvested, which was off 20% from 2018.

Editor’s note: The annual Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report has been generated the previous two years by the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement. Both years, the report was released in September. In 2018, the Oregon wine industry harvested a total of 100,313 tons, with 59% of the crush being Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir production grows by 61%

pinot noir for blanc de noir at College Cellars in Walla Walla.
Pinot Noir is ready to be harvested at Breezy Slope Vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. These vines have been used by award-winning producers in Walla Walla such as Lagana Cellars and College Cellars. (Richard Duval Images)

Riesling, Merlot and Syrah rounded out the top five, and those five varieties reflect more than 80% of the harvest in Washington. 

In sticking with the recent trend, the breakdown of red to white in the Evergreen State was 60/40 in 2019. White varieties led the way (53/47) as recently as the 2014 harvest.

Last year, the only varieties that showed growth were Pinot Noir (61%), which climbed from 1,100 tons to 1,775 tons, and Grenache (4%). The increased thirst for sparkling wine and rosé would seem to be helping to drive the market for both grapes.

And for the third year in a row, Petit Verdot was on average the priciest variety grown in Washington, commanding $1,876 per ton. It edged out Cabernet Franc ($1,857) with Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,702) at No. 3.

Last year’s harvest extended the dramatic decrease in Germanic varieties Riesling and Gewürztraminer. As recent as 2015, there were 44,100 tons of Riesling harvested. Last fall, it totaled just 23,325 tons – a drop of 47% in the span of five years.

The harvest of Gewürztraminer in Washington stood 2,600 tons in 2016. Three years later, it came in at 1,205 tons, a reduction of more than 53%. That’s a sad state of affairs for the aromatic charmer that helped inspire the late Andre Tchelistcheff to spend time in Washington as a consulting winemaker.

In California, the statewide average price for a ton of Cab was $1,769 — not that much more than in Washington state. However, in the Napa Valley, the average price per ton was $8,008. A rough industry estimate projects that a bottle of Napa Valley Cab would go for an average of $80 vs. about $17 for a Washington-grown Cab.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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