SW Wash. aims to warm up wine industry

Steve Brown/Capital Press Walt Houser describes the winemaking process at his vineyard and winery in Clark County, Wash. Concerts and weddings on his property are a big part of his business.

Ordinance would establish standards, fees for weddings and other events

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

VANCOUVER, Wash. -- An ordinance enacted by Clark County commissioners could give the wine industry in southwestern Washington a leg up.

Adopted Oct. 5, the ordinance clarifies standards and establishes fees for vineyards and wineries to host events such as weddings, receptions and concerts on their property.

"Events are an important part of my long-term strategy. ... Successful vineyards make a whole experience," John Choquer, who started his Chateau Choquer Vineyards in Battle Ground, Wash., in 2010, said.

The new section of the county code is the outgrowth of winery neighbors' complaints about road access, he said. The ordinance establishes two processes for gaining approval for events, depending on whether access is from a public or a private road. It also clarifies parking availability, building sizes and limits the number of events per year.

Walt Houser, whose Bethany Vineyard has become a popular site for events, said the new ordinance levels the playing field for all operations. On an area near a lake in the middle of his vineyard, he hosts five major concerts and numerous weddings every year.

"Concerts are the biggest sales days of the year for us, except for pickup days for our Cellar Club," he said.

Along with civic encouragement for the industry, grape growers and winemakers are trying to build their own numbers, eventually seeking designation of the region as an American Viticultural Area.

Southwestern Washington has a heritage of growing winegrapes. The region lacks the stature of the eastern part of the state, but it holds promise, Choquer said.

The first grapes grown in the state were at historic Fort Vancouver in the 19th century. At his vineyard, Choquer and his wife, Marian, have planted several varieties similar to what are grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley, directly to the south.

"My vision is to grow the area into a major wine-producing region," he said. "We have rich clay soils ... and we have the potential to make better wines than Oregon."

The best wines are grown on the fringes of weather patterns, he said. That includes Western Oregon and California's Napa Valley, as well as Western Washington, which has conditions similar to the Burgundy region of France.

Speaking to several beginning and prospective winegrape growers, Choquer encouraged them to look beyond "the tunnel vision of Pinot" and to include Chardonnay and Riesling grapes in their plans.

Growers around the world face challenges, he said, "but here we're not too hot and not too cold."

Charles Brun, horticultural adviser with the Washington State University Extension, said the region receives 2,400 heat units, comparable to the Willamette Valley, and makes winegrape production possible in Clark County and parts of Lewis County to the north.

Most of the WSU research into winegrapes has been done in Central and Eastern Washington, which have 743 wineries, compared to 12 in the southwest corner. Work done at Oregon State University is more applicable, he said, and he suggested that growers tap into that information.

Choquer said with the new developments and research available, "This can become a mini-Napa. This is an opportunity for a whole hospitality industry."

Synopsis: Winegrape growers in Clark County, Wash., see a new county ordinance as a stepping stone to growing the industry in their corner of the state.

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