While Washington's wine industry dodged many of the devastating state budget cuts that are now threatening to cripple less-established grape-growing regions, winemakers are wondering what this month's permanent closure of the state's tourism office means for them.
"It's probably too soon to tell what the full impact will be," says Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission. "We'll be working very closely with local tourism organizations."
According to Pollard, 1.7 million wine tourists visited Washington wineries in 2006, the last year for which good data is available. The wine commission expects to release updated statistics in September which should reflect the industry's massive growth: The number of wineries statewide has nearly doubled over the past five years.
Washington is one of the few states where wineries aren't clustered in a single valley or around a particular lake. "We have wineries located in every corner of the state," says
Pollard, whose organization is charged with promoting Washington as a whole--much as
the state tourism office did before it closed.
Pollard says the importance of tourism extends far beyond the money drinkers spend while making winery rounds. "It's about the experience," Pollard says. "When people come and meet the winemaker, there's a much stronger connection that translates into stronger loyalty."
The chance to interact with winemakers is "what distinguishes our region from some of the others," says Pollard. Whether the size of a state's wine industry is measured by production, sales, vineyard acreage, positive reviews, or number of wineries, Washington usually ends up sharing the nation's top three spots with Oregon and California, which remains the behemoth of American vino.
Flourishing wine industries in New York, Virginia, and Texas had hoped to soon make the leap to the big leagues, transitioning in most wine drinkers' minds from regional oddities to respected, premium grape-growing states. But their ambitions may be waylaid by severe state budget cuts that could reshuffle the national wine scene: While Washington's wine industry survived the state budget fight relatively unscathed--plans to build a wine learning and exhibition center in Prosser, for example, are proceeding--wine was a popular target for penny-pinching legislators elsewhere. Texas eliminated its wine-marketing program, and New York slashed funding for grape and wine research.
Pollard refused to say whether Washington would directly benefit from the fiscal hobbling of up-and-coming wine states. "We're going to continue to do our part to raise awareness that Washington state wine is special," she says.