Red Mountain investments sure to pay big dividends

May 20, 2012 

When state Rep. Larry Haler compared Red Mountain to Napa Valley the other day, we had to admire his enthusiasm and forgive the hyperbole.

Napa's 43,000 acres are home to more than 390 wineries. An economic study completed in 2005 estimated that 3 million visitors a year were dropping about $500 million in the picturesque valley. The total economic impact was estimated at $9.5 billion.

The Red Mountain American Viticultural Area's 4,040 acres of prime wine grape-growing land can never reach Napa's production levels.

But the cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, sangiovese and other red varieties grown on Red Mountain are some of the most prized grapes in Washington, fetching more than $2,000 per ton -- twice the state average.

At least 15 wineries are on the mountain, and tasting rooms there offer sweeping vistas of the Yakima Valley, along with ample measures of genuine hospitality.

Then there are the top-ranked wines produced on Red Mountain, which have earned major honors in wine competitions around the world.

Red Mountain can never beat Napa Valley for quantity, but in our admittedly biased estimation, it has already surpassed the quality.

And for the millions of people packed into the Interstate 5 corridor between Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia, Red Mountain offers something Napa Valley never can -- proximity.

It's why we're as excited as Haler about the potential for this unpolished gem in our backyard to become a major magnet for wine tourists.

And it's why we're excited about recent developments that promise to help the state fully exploit this valuable resource.

Kennewick Irrigation District's plan to bring water to 1,700 on the south side of Red Mountain is high on our list of things be excited about.

The estimated $17.2 million cost might seem high, but landowners are picking up the cost through a local improvement district.

The Local Improvement District, which was formed in September 2009, has 85 participants, including KID, which owns about 250 acres in nine parcels.

The reason property owners are lining up to take on this debt is simple -- it's an investment that will reap significant profits.

A recent economic impact study by the Washington Wine Commission found that the state's wine industry is worth $8.6 billion a year, up $3 billion in five years.

In Benton County, the wine industry annually contributes about $1 billion to the economy.

And that's just the start. Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, told the Herald that per capita wine consumption in the United States is increasing at a rate that will put the American wine industry in short supply of grapes in another five years.

Washington has more than 43,000 acres of vines, and Baseler said another 10,000 acres "would be a nice start."

The alternative is to leave a shortage of premium grapes that will be filled by international competitors to Washington's wineries. Fortunately, the danger of that happening is remote.

Further development planned at Red Mountain makes it that much more unlikely.

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