Wine industry shines in good times and bad

Financial woes and market whims have plagued many industries in the state in recent times, but the wine industry seems to be an exception.

They say people drink more in hard times, but that's really not the reason for the industry's continued record-setting growth.

A lot more acres of vineyards are coming to harvest age, helping the industry crush more than 165,000 tons of grapes in 2009.

While most folks tend to visualize red when they think of wine, more than a third of those grapes were the white varietals of chardonnay and riesling.

Vineyards that were planted a few years ago finally are producing. Unlike many other crops, it takes vines more than a single season to mature. And the warm weather last summer helped increase the amount of grapes per acre.

The great thing about the wine industry -- whether you imbibe or abstain from consuming the fermented fruit of the vine -- is that it combines agriculture and tourism in a blissful marriage that brings the economy full circle in our backyard.

Our vineyards grow the grapes, which are sold to the wineries, which are made into wine, which is sold the consumer. That consumer may be local or from another country, as Washington wines inch their way onto restaurant menus and store shelves across the nation and international borders.

As most wine lovers know, it all starts with the grape. In the Tri-Cities we're blessed with the growing conditions and soil to make those vines happy and productive. Or stressed and productive, if you want to get more technical.

Wineries have tapped into the tourism industry to showcase the finished product, developing sophisticated tasting rooms, entertainment programs and some dining options.

People who like wine like to see where it's made. So when they buy that bottle of Washington wine and enjoy it, a vacation in our wine country could follow.

Our wineries are in close proximity to each other, our landscape is covered in vineyards and we've got rivers running through the mix to add to the appeal. Throw in a few rounds of golf and a nice dinner and you've got a great long-weekend visit to the Tri-Cities.

The wine industry as a whole contributes $3 billion to our state's economy and provides jobs for 15,000 people.

With 650 wineries licensed by the state, we're just getting warmed up. Areas across the state are reinventing themselves as wine destinations, from Lake Chelan to Woodinville.

We're proud of our wine industry. And while it's unlikely we'll unseat California from its throne, we're making a statement across the country with the quality of our wines. (California crushed 3.44 million tons of wine grapes last year.)

While the growth of grape production has been impressive, it's not likely to be sustained. Plantings have slowed, and production will level off in the next few years.

But with 34,000 acres in wine grapes and another 2,600 set to come online in the next two years, there should be some incremental increases in production ahead.

And what better way to support our local industry than with a purchase. Where's that corkscrew?