The Washington wine industry has grown rapidly in the last twelve years from several hundred wineries at the turn of the century to over 740 today. Are Washingtonians keeping up and drinking enough local wine?

Data on in-state purchases of Washington wine can be difficult to come by. However, at last week’s Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual conference, Danny Braeger, Vice President Group Client Director on the Beverage Alcohol Team at Nielsen, provided some insight.

According to Braeger, looking at Nielsen’s measured grocery channel – which I should note only accounts for a percentage of sales – 36% of Washington wine sales are within state. In comparison, neighboring Oregon purchases 55% of its wine. Some smaller producing states, such as Michigan, purchase a whopping 86% of their own wine. By comparison, Washington’s in-state consumption doesn’t seem particularly encouraging.

However, if it seems odd to think that so much Washington wine is actually being sold out of state, it’s because it is. As a wine producing region, Washington is notable for its numerous small producers, the vast majority of which make less than 5,000 cases annually. Indeed a frequent complaint from Washington wine lovers and interested parties is that specific wines are often very difficult to come by.

As one might expect, the state’s largest player – Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and a number of other brands – skews the data considerably. SMWE makes more wine than most of the rest of the wineries in the state combined. They also, of course, have heavy grocery store placement.

So what does Washington’s in-state consumption look like if we remove SMWE from the picture? Here things look considerably better, growing to 54% sold within the state. This is comparable to Oregon at 55%. California, which of course dominates production in the U.S., stands at 23%.

One question arises from these data – is it better to have more local sales or more sales throughout the country? Similarly, where should Washington as a region focus its marketing efforts? Should the focus be on trying to increase sales within the state or should it be to increase sales outside of the state?

I believe the answer has to be both. Much can be done to increase local wine consumption – particularly in the large Seattle market. However, it is critically important that the state raise its profile in other areas of the country and indeed around the world to continue to grow the industry.

While Washington has established itself as a significant wine region, many of the producers and wines are still not well known outside of the region. Continuing to grow the Washington brand further beyond the state’s borders to the rest of the country and indeed around the world is the next step in the state’s evolution as a wine region. But we still need to make sure we take care of our own backyard.