It has been a busy year throughout Northwest wine country, with the top stories often dealing with the historically warm growing seasons in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.
We look at 10 top stories we wrote about in 2015 in this annual roundup of wine-related news.
1. Wine Science Center opens at WSU Tri-Cities campus
In August, the Wine Science Center opened in Richland. This means 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Wine Science Center. The $23 million facility on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities ushers in a new era for the state wine industry.
When the completed facility was unveiled in June, a new name also was revealed: the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center, which honors the contributions of the state’s largest and oldest wine-producing company.
The 40,000-square-foot facility will not only educate the next generation of Washington winemakers, but it also provides the space and technology to conduct research that will help grape growers and winemakers improve their crafts.
2. Hot, early 2015 vintage across Northwest
The 2015 vintage will be remembered as the warmest ever. Across the Northwest, wine grapes matured quickly and were harvested at historically early times.
In Washington, the first grapes were picked on Red Mountain on Aug. 6, nearly a month earlier than normal. This trend was seen in Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.
Harvest also ended a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and British Columbia icewine producers also were able to get to work early, thanks to a November freeze.
3. Northwest wine regions survive drought
Water woes filled headlines up and down the West Coast, but the Northwest was able to weather the lack of water better than California. Most wine regions in the Northwest managed to make it through the historically hot year, with the Yakima Valley being the area most affected by the state’s drought.
4. Washington, Oregon wines continue growth
In September, an economic impact study showed Washington’s wine industry has continued its success, growing to 4.78 billion per year and providing 26,900 jobs. According to a similar study released in January, Oregon’s wine industry provides $3.3 billion to the state’s bottom line. Wine-related jobs in Oregon top 17,000.
5. Northwest wines dominate Wine Spectator top 100
Of the top 50 wines on Wine Spectator’s annual list of the world’s 100 most exciting wines, Northwest wines dominated, holding 20 percent of the positions, including the Nos. 2 and 3 wines. Harvey Steiman, editor-at-large for Wine Spectator who covers Washington and Oregon for the world’s largest and most respected wine periodical, said the Quilceda Creek Vintners 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon was close to being named the No. 1 wine in the world.
6. Charles Smith opens Jet City winery
In July, Smith opened his Jet City facility at the northern end of Boeing Field in a 51-year-old former Dr Pepper bottling plant. The 32,000-square-foot facility can handle 40,000 cases of production.
Smith and his team have moved the entire operation to Seattle, where they hope to tap into its vibrant wine scene. He still operates two tasting rooms in Walla Walla. Since launching K Vintners in 1999, Smith has built his operation into a 650,000-case wine empire, the third largest in the state.
7. Lots of vineyard plantings on Red Mountain
It was a busy year for planting vines on Red Mountain, considered the top wine grape region in Washington. Thanks to the arrival of more water from the Kennewick Irrigation District, vineyards were going in fast.
Leading the way was Aquilini, a British Columbia company that purchased more than 600 acres of land in and adjacent to the Red Mountain AVA. This year, it worked to plant 545 acres of vineyards on Red Mountain — mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.
About 2,000 acres of vines are now planted within Red Mountain’s 4,040 acres.
This year also marked the 40th anniversary of the first vines planted on Red Mountain by John Williams and Jim Holmes at Kiona Vineyards & Winery.
8. Willamette Valley Vineyards invests in SeVein
Not far from the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is one of the most exciting new vineyard projects in the Pacific Northwest, and a large Oregon winery now has invested in its future.
In June, Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., announced it had purchased 42 acres of land in SeVein, a north-facing area on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Jim Bernau, CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, has an option to purchase another 45 acres. He is creating a new winery called Pambrun that will use grapes exclusively from SeVein.
Other wineries that already have invested in the intriguing 2,700-acre development are L’Ecole No. 41, Leonetti Cellar, Betz Family Winery, Doubleback, Pepper Bridge Winery, Cadaretta and JM Cellars.
9. New viticultural regions
Two new American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in the Northwest were approved in 2015 by the federal government.
In February, the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater was approved. The region south of Walla Walla is on the Oregon side of the valley, making it the state’s 18th AVA. The Rocks District is famous for its Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons.
In November, the Eagle Foothills gained approval. The region, north of Boise, is Idaho’s second AVA (the Snake River Valley was approved in 2007). It is home to 69 acres of vines and one winery so far.
10. Deaths: Fred Artz, Jack Jones, Cole Danehower
The Northwest wine industry lost three family members in 2015:
Fred Artz, a longtime grape grower on Red Mountain, died in February. He was 64. Artz was a longtime grower at Klipsun Vineyards and planted nearby Artz Vineyard in 1996. In 2009, he was honored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Eastern Washington agriculturist and grape grower Jack Jones died in March. Jones owned several vineyards on the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley. He was co-owner of J&S Crushing in Mattawa and owner of Jones of Washington winery, which has tasting rooms in Othello and Wenatchee. He was 73.
Cole Danehower, a Portland-based wine writer and author, died in August. He was 61. Danehower was a James Beard Award-winning journalist who owned Oregon Wine Report newsletter and Northwest Palate magazine. He also was the author of Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, which published in 2010.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com