Washington wine by the numbers
2: Rank in U.S. wine production (behind California)
MANSON — Timi Starkweather had lots of support when she decided to expand her small cheese shop into a full-blown bistro that would take advantage of Manson’s thriving wine tourism economy.
Her Fromaggio Bistro is only one slice of business around Lake Chelan and through much of Chelan County spirited by wine.
Starkweather said her restaurant targets tourists, vacationers and local residents who enjoy the foods, gifts and the experience that goes with wine. In addition to nearly 200 international cheeses, bistro and tapas-style dining and fresh-made cheese and ice cream, Fromaggio offers a wide selection of international wines and beers by the glass or bottle. Local wines are featured each night.
“We interact with all the local wineries. We go hand in hand,” Starkweather said.
Some 20 wineries have opened around the south end of Lake Chelan in little more than decade, spawning a new wine economy that supports dozens of other ancillary businesses, including restaurants, gift and clothing shops, and entertainment offerings.
Lake Chelan isn’t the only area to see a boom in business as a result of wine tourism. New restaurants, shops and wine industry supply businesses are popping up all over North Central Washington to cater to the many new wineries and new flow of traffic they bring in. Existing hotels in Leavenworth, Wenatchee, Cashmere and other NCW cities are also drinking the benefits of wine.
Leavenworth has more than a dozen wine tasting rooms to cash in on the Bavarian theme town’s tourists. The town has added wine-themed events to its long list of Bavarian festivals that help fill existing restaurants and hotels with a new group of wine-on-the-mind tourists.
The Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce offers visitors tastes of several local wines right in its downtown office. Wine gardens are now held as part of the Washington Apple Blossom Festival and many other Wenatchee Valley festivals. Wine bars like The Wine Thief serve up hundreds of wine choices to customers who want to know more about what they drink. The new Pybus Market includes new restaurants that serve wine. There is also a Jones of Washington tasting room at Pybus.
Close to 80 wineries have popped up in North Central Washington in recent years. Nearly 800 have opened up in the state. Twenty years ago there were only about 25 wineries in the state and one or two in NCW.
Washington’s wine industry may be young, but it’s already providing a real lift to the state’s economy. A 2012 study by the Washington Wine Commission found that the wine industry had an impact of $8.6 billion within the state in 2011, up from $3 billion in 2007. Wine grapes are the state’s third leading crop in terms of economic impact, behind apples and cherries.
Wineries in the state attracted 2.4 million tourists who spent $1.4 billion in 2011. Total economic benefit of wine in Chelan County amounted to $221.4 million that year, according to the study.
But there are many indirect economic benefits as well.
“Wineries are pairing with great restaurants and great chefs and creating a new experience here. And a lot of new jobs,” said Mike Steele, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce.
The lake has always been a draw for summer vacationers, he said, but the wineries have attracted a new demographic. They’re wine tourists with more money to spend on great food, upscale lodging and experiences that complement a wine lifestyle.
New businesses are opening to take advantage of the new customers, he said. New activities like wine and yoga (stretch & sip), wine and paddleboarding, and wine-pairing classes have started. The annual Lake Chelan Wine Walk has become a huge success in the past few years and now turns away people for a downtown Chelan winter event when the town would otherwise be empty, he said.
“Our goal is to create a stable economy here 12 months of the year. Wine certainly helps us do that,” said Steele, a fifth-generation Chelan native whose family still farms apples on the lake. Steele said he can definitely see the potential for Lake Chelan becoming Washington’s “Napa,” referring to the Northern California vineyard town known for its trendy wine culture. Wine will bring more hotels, restaurants and shops to the area, he said, but the vineyards that have replaced apple orchards on the rolling hills surrounding the lake, preserve the scenic beauty, open space and agricultural heritage in a positive way and lasting way.
“It fits with our vision to protect the quality of life but really up the ante when it comes to experience,” he said. “Apples are an export product. Wine is an experience product that brings people in.”
The Chelan County Port District has spent nearly $600,000 since 2006 to help promote the county’s wine and ag tourism industries, said Mark Urdahl, port executive director. Port help began as early as 2000 when it won a grant to fund a feasibility study for starting up a boutique wine industry around Lake Chelan. Several wineries and restaurants used that study as part of their business plan. The local wine industry has since become self-supporting and Port funds have been redirected to other projects, Urdahl said.
“There’s a tremendous upside to have a wine industry take root and thrive here,” he said. Wine helps Chelan County become a tourist destination and helps it create another “brand” that attracts professionals looking for employment and recreation, said Urdahl.
“Wine gives people another reason to come and stay,” said Mike Veseth, who teaches classes in global economics at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Veseth has written several books about wine economics and publishes an online blog called the “Wine Economist.”
Wine contributes to local economies in many ways, he said. Areas like Lake Chelan, Leavenworth and Wenatchee are particularly fortunate because they have scenic beauty and outdoor activities that already draw tourists. They also have strong ag-related economies from apples, cherries and pears. Veseth said he recently returned from meetings in Kennewick and Yakima where winery owners voiced frustration over their inability to lure tourists.
“If they had what Chelan and Leavenworth had, they would be in heaven,” he said.
Wineries give people who come to the area more to do and also draw new people who are principally interested in wine-related experiences. When tourists stop in at a winery and have a good experience, they remember that wine as well as the experience offered by the area, he said.
“Tourists become wine ambassadors for the area. They go home and talk about the area and its wines,” he said.