For Gov. Gregoire, it's all about exports

When Gov. Chris Gregoire sits down to a dinner with a glass of wine, she makes sure it's from Washington.

Before one state dinner, she sent a letter to organizers to make sure wine from her state would be available.

"I told them I would pay the corkage fee and bring my own," Gregoire told a crowd gathered Friday in Prosser at the vineyard pavilion of the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center.

Wine and wine grapes were Gregoire's focus Friday as she finished up a two-day trip to the Mid-Columbia.

Gregoire visited sites where the state has invested in construction projects, from a new irrigation pumping station on the Yakima River serving the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area to a $20 million wine distribution center south of Burbank.

The governor and other officials and advocates spoke of how the projects are just one aspect of support for the state's agricultural industry.

They also illustrate the importance of partnerships and represent an effort to secure the state's economy by exporting the fruits of its earth across the nation and world, officials said.

"She's had an almost single-minded focus that exports would save us," said Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

Gregoire, a Democrat, will finish her second term in office at the end of this year and has opted against running again. She likely is to be succeeded by either Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna or former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee.

She told the Herald on Friday that she's uncertain what might come next, other than delighting in the pending birth of her first grandchild, due in November.

"I don't have the word retire in my vocabulary," she said.

The state has had a hand in all three of the projects Gregoire visited Friday. It provided $10 million for the yet-to-be-built pump station just outside Benton City, which will double the irrigated acreage to Red Mountain vineyards.

"I've had water, but it's been ground water," said Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain. "Now I'll be able to replace that ground water with surface water."

Ground water is a finite and less-reliable source of water, while surface water is a steadier source, Holmes said.

Gregoire said she has supported the Clore Center since she first learned of it in 2006 and continues to do so as the center prepares to build its key structure.

The state also will eventually provide $2.75 million to refrigerated rail shipper Railex after it builds its $20 million, 500,000-square-foot wine distribution center.

The facility, which mostly will ship wine produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle, will be able to hold an estimated 5 million cases and ship 10 times what the state currently exports in a year.

The governor said the wine industry has done nothing but grow since she was elected, and its continued growth and penetration into markets are crucial.

"We're known for Starbucks, for Boeing, for Microsoft. But make no mistake about it: We're known for our agriculture," Gregoire said just before breaking ground for the new Yakima River pump station.

She said the availability of water has been a priority of hers since she first became director of the Department of Ecology in 1988. She also served two terms as attorney general before being elected governor in 2004.

She said that as the ecology head, it quickly became apparent to her that water would be an important issue for the state, even when other people around her scoffed.

"People laughed at me, especially on the west side," she said.

But she advocated for developing water storage, which in her view is the best way to ensure adequate water supplies for agriculture, economic development and industrial development in coming years.

"I don't see any other way," Gregoire said.

As she toured the region Friday, Gregoire touted the state's agricultural products, from apples and apricots to hay and wheat, throughout the day.

"She is clearly our best cheerleader, our best supporter, our best salesperson," said Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture, Sunnyside farmer and former Republican state representative.

The governor's support of agriculture has translated to economic development. The Red Mountain project will put more grapevines in the ground, something Gregoire said is necessary to continue growing the agricultural economy.

The Railex project, which Senior Vice President Jim Kleist described as "phase one," will create dozens of new jobs and get more Washington wine to the East Coast.

More importantly, the projects are forging partnerships. Kleist said the Railex facility, which is set to open in February, was eased along by the cooperation of government officials, from the local level on up.

"These projects become so much more difficult and sometimes don't get off the ground (without government support)," Kleist told a crowd of about 80 at the groundbreaking.

The Yakima River pump station, while increasing irrigation to Red Mountain acreage, also will put 11,000 acre-feet of water in the lower Yakima River for fish, and protect 1,200 acres of shrub-steppe habitat.

All those provisions were the result of years of discussions with irrigators, the Yakama Nation, government officials and environmentalists.

"This is not just one of those things that happened to happen while Chris Gregoire was in office," Sturdevant said. "Everyone wins in this project."