Wine industry's growth leaves room for more

May 2, 2012 

Wine is big business.

Of course, those of us who live here knew that.

In Benton County alone, the wine industry contributes about $1 billion per year to the economy.

Statewide, wine is worth $8.6 billion. That's up $3 million in just about five years.

Twenty-seven thousand people are employed in the industry, earning $1.2 billion in annual pay.

The growth of the wine industry and its economic impact are significant, especially here in the Mid-Columbia, where much of the state's wine grapes are grown and bottled.

King County -- home to Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state's largest wine producer -- benefits the most from the state's wine industry, but Benton County ranks second.

To put it in perspective, Ste. Michelle makes about 2 million of the state's 12 million cases of wine each year, accounting for nearly $3 billion in economic impact.

So Benton County has a way to go to catch up to those figures, but it's not out of the realm of possibility, considering this is where much of the state's wine begins its life on the vine.

And industry experts say Washington is poised for additional growth.

The demand for wine is expected to climb, along with the per capita consumption in the U.S. In fact, our nation's love of wine is increasing at such a rapid pace that we will not have enough wine grapes to keep up in five years.

Even though our state has 43,000 acres of vineyards, another 10,000 would be a good start toward keeping up with demand.

If we don't keep pace with the grapes needed to meet consumer demand, other countries will. We've already seen a dominance of imported value brands at the supermarket, the kinds with kangaroos on the labels or South American origins. The world is way ahead of us when it comes to supplying wine for the masses.

Right behind the need for more vines is the need for improved tourist facilities. Wineries in Prosser are clamoring for bus service on busy weekends; hotels in the Valley are few and far between. Red Mountain is a distance from fine dining establishments or quaint shops filled with gourmet picnic supplies. Only a couple of areas exist where neighboring wineries are within walking distance.

We see a lot of convention and sports tournament business in the Tri-Cities, bringing tourists from far and wide. Those folks are looking for activities in addition to their business meetings and competitions. Our wineries are inviting sites for excursions and receptions.

Some infrastructure is already in the works. Richland has six hotels in the pipeline, creating more options for lodging. And we've encouraged the local transit agency to take a look at providing transportation to wineries as a new revenue stream. We have some good newer events taking root, like Revelry coming up at the end of the month on Memorial Day weekend on Red Mountain. And we can't say enough good things about Vintner's Village in Prosser as a tourism destination.

In another five years, we're sure the growth will seem even more astounding.

We can't wait to see what develops. And we're glad Benton County is getting finally getting the recognition it deserves for its long-established contributions to the state's wine industry.

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