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Grape expectations

State needs to better market grape industry, says WSU professor

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WSU's Dr. Ray Folwell shares his long anticipated trend predictions for the Washington state grape industry.

GRANDVIEW - An increase from 16 wineries in 1980 to 367 in 2005 is something to shout about, but the state needs to shout a little louder to overcome national and international competition.

That was the point put across by WSU's Dr. Ray Folwell on Thursday during the state Grape Society's annual meeting in Grandview.

The annual industry forecast by Folwell, a grape prognosticating legend, is one of the biggest draws to the grape society confab.

Winemakers and grape farmers alike have for the past 25 years looked to Folwell-a sort of Alan Greenspan in the industry-to get ahead of the curve on market trends.

Thursday was no different. Folwell's grape expectations for 2006 included:

• White Riesling is gold. It is expected to bring $850 a ton, a four-fold increase from a few years ago. "Riesling's back," Folwell said.

• The Merlot market is mellowing. "There's a question out there in the industry wondering if the Merlot market has matured, reached the saturation point," Folwell observed. The numbers back him up as Merlot's sales volume rose just 1.2 percent last year. Compare that to Cabernet Sauvignon at 8 percent.

• Washington growers are producing outstanding wine and Concord grapes. But market pressures remain from California, which is far and away the nation's largest grape producer. Folwell also pointed to Australia's Syrah wine which is being heavily marketed "in our back yard."

• In Europe there is oversupply of grapes, to the point that a quarter of French and Italian vineyards are converting their grapes to industrial alcohol.

"You can now purchase three liters of quality French wine for $15 or $16, which is a good buy," said Folwell. "The price market between high quality table wines and good wines has narrowed considerably."

Folwell concluded with two points of concern.

First, larger wineries are buying up the smaller operations. "Our growers in this state are going to have to get accustomed to dealing with larger wineries," Folwell stated. "There will come a time when growers probably won't be dealing with the small winery down the road, but with a larger corporation."

Secondly, Folwell expressed hopes that the larger corporate philosophies will not result in a decrease of grape quality.

"We cannot diminish the quality and consistency in our grape industry or we won't have an industry," he said.

"Our grape growers are growing," Folwell closed on a hopeful note. "We have plenty of supply and we have a superior product-now we just need to improve our marketing to keep up with the industry."

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