Last month I wrote about a few recent trends in the Washington wine industry. Here I discuss other recent trends and the potential implications for the coming years.

Increased Number of Grape Varieties Planted

For many years Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Riesling have dominated the Washington wine scene. In the last ten years, this has started to change. Many vineyards now have twenty or more varieties planted. This has resulted in the emergence of several varieties in the last decade, particularly Syrah and Malbec. However, a number of varieties that were previously almost unheard of in Washington are popping up each year as well, such as Juan Garcia, Tempranillo, Albarino, and Grenache to name just a few.

This will present some interesting opportunities and challenges for the industry in the coming years. In terms of opportunities, wineries will have a chance to make a name for themselves based on a particular emerging variety. Creating a brand around something unique is, at least in theory, somewhat easier than trying to compete with hundreds of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon.

In terms of challenges, in the coming years Washington will continue to show more breadth than focus. The large number of new varieties being experimented with promises to leave the Washington wine scene somewhat fragmented for the foreseeable future. Though the exploration of different varieties will continue to create a number of issues for the industry, it is also part of the process of Washington finding and establishing its identity. And who knows? One of the grapes people are playing with could turn out to be very, very interesting here.

Increased Number of Estate Vineyards

One of the aspects that has long distinguished Washington as a wine region is the large number of wineries that do not have vineyards associated with them. Instead, many wineries purchase fruit to make their wines. This has had two significant effects. First, it has allowed numerous wineries to set up shop and live close to a large consumer base in the Seattle metropolitan area. Second, it has allowed wineries to get into the business comparatively quickly and cheaply, contributing to the recent increase in the number of wineries in the state.

However, more recently there has been a trend toward establishing estate vineyards. Even a number of long-tenured Washington wineries, such as Leonetti Cellar, DeLille Cellars, and Quilceda Creek to name just a few, have established estate vineyards recently. Additionally, many wineries that do not own vineyards have established long-term contracts for specific vineyard blocks. Both give a winery greater consistency in style from year to year.

While I believe there will always be a large number of wineries using non-estate fruit in Washington, I expect the trend toward planting estate vineyards to continue in the coming years. It gives a winery complete control over its operation and has financial implications as well.

Improved Winemaking

Ten years ago there were about one hundred and fifty wineries in Washington. Of those, a reasonably small number had extensive winemaking experience. A limited number were making highly rated, world-class wine. Since then the number of wineries has increased dramatically as has the number making exceptional wines.

To wit, in the year 2000, thirty-four Washington wines received a rating of ninety points or higher from Wine Spectator. Halfway through 2010, more than one hundred and thirty wines have received such a rating. This is due both to an increase in the number of wineries in the state and an increase in winemaking knowledge. There are more people doing it and more people doing it better.

Improved Viticulture

Since its early days, Washington has been an agricultural state. Subsequently, for many years grapes were treated simply as another crop without a great deal of focus on how to maximize the quality. Quantity was king.

While many people say ‘wine is made in the vineyard,’ in the last ten years more people are starting to take that saying to heart by focusing on viticulture. Additionally, there has been an increase in enology and viticulture programs around the state. This has resulted in an increase in knowledge, quality, and competition. Perhaps the most exciting part of this is that this is still a reasonably recent trend. The focus on viticulture promises to only get more intense in the coming years.

Increased Alcohol Levels

The rise in alcohol levels in Washington wines in the last ten years has been dramatic. If one looks at labels from the late nineties, many red wines were twelve and a half to thirteen percent alcohol. If one searches for a wine in that range today about the only place to find it is in the under ten dollar section where some vineyard or winery has bulked off their under ripe Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many things have contributed to this change. Among them are changes in viticulture and enology, as well as an evolution of consumer tastes. Certainly this trend is not specific to Washington (insert rant about/defense of so called ‘Parkerization’ here).

More recently there has been somewhat of a bifurcation in the Washington wine industry. Some wineries have continued to push upwards with wines at sixteen percent alcohol (do I hear seventeen?). Some wineries have bucked the trend and started making lower alcohol wines again.

Looking back at wines from ten-plus years ago, it is clear that Washington can produce ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes at lower alcohol levels. It has just chosen not to recently. I believe over time that we will see more wines across a range of alcohol levels in the state.

While the last ten years have been dramatic in Washington, the next ten years guarantee to be even more so. There is currently a perfect confluence of factors – a significant acreage and variety of plantings, a focus on viticulture, significant experience, better knowledge, and increased critical attention and acclaim – to make tremendous strides in the industry. Add to this a critical mass of people and boundless enthusiasm, and the next ten years look to be ‘The decade of Washington wine.’