A Brief History and Timeline of Winemaking in Washington and the Yakima Valley


Wine grapes are not indigenous to Washington.  The first grapes were planted north of the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver, by settlers in the 1820’s.  These first grapes were planted from seeds, and were probably table grapes, not wine grapes.  Later, Vitis Vinifera vines were imported from Europe.  Washington’s indigenous grapes, Vitis Labrusca are not as well suited to wine making as Europe’s native grapes.  Washington didn’t begin to emerge as a major premium wine producer until the 1960’s.


Several factors slowed the growth of Washington’s wine industry.  By the 1920’s, California’s wine industry was off to a good start and was producing quality wines.  Grapes could easily be shipped by train from California, so Washington wine makers often used these more economically priced grapes rather than locally produced grapes.  As a result, growers were slower to recognize the potential of Washington as a wine making region.


Washington’s first successful commercial vineyard and winery was established on Stretch Island in Puget Sound.  After irrigation methods became widely available in the early 1920’s, grapes were able to thrive in Eastern Washington.  Even though grapes grow well in dry climates like the Columbia Valley’s, the grower needs to have some way to control the application of water to the vines.


With the onset of prohibition in 1920, Washington’s struggling wine industry was further challenged.  People were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year in private, non-commercial operations, so demand for wine grapes actually increased.  After prohibition was repealed in 1933, each state had to determine its own laws and guidelines for the production of wine.  Washington settled on a set of protectionist regulations which prevented out of state wines from competing with Washington’s wines.  This held down the quality of Washington wines.


In the 1970’s, Washington state legislature finally repealed these restrictive regulations, opening up the industry to competition, particularly from California wines.  Many mediocre Washington wineries went out of business, and those that remained were forced to improve their quality.  Washington’s grape growers realized they were living in the heart of one of the best grape growing regions in the country.  Wine aficionados in other states, and even around the world, also began to realize Washington’s potential.  Since then, Washington’s wines have steadily improved in quality, and the industry has grown.  In 1981 there were 19 wineries in the state; by 2002 there were more than 170 wineries, and today there are more than 400!  Total acreage planted in wine grapes doubles every four years.


Today, Washington is second only to California in U.S. wine production.  75% of WA wines are produced by two national conglomerates: US Tobacco’s Stimson Lane (which includes Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and Snoqualmie) and Canandaigua’s Columbia (including Columbia and Covey Run).  These wineries’ tasting rooms and corporate headquarters are located in the Seattle area, though their grapes are grown, and parts of the winemaking process occur, in other locations.  Many of these labels are sold in grocery stores and wine shops throughout the locally, throughout the nation, and overseas.


It is in the many small family wineries that thrive all over the state that one can truly appreciate the intricate history of Washington’s wines.  Visiting these wineries allows you to get firsthand knowledge of the history and character of Washington’s wines.  Another good reason to visit smaller wineries is that their wines are typically only available at the winery.  You may very well find your favorite wine somewhere other than a grocery store shelf.