GRANDVIEW — The good news for winemaker Robert Smasne is that he has plenty of grapes.
It’s also good news that he doesn’t have too many.
“It sells pretty well,” said Smasne as he and his crew pressed his share of the state’s record wine grape harvest earlier this week.
Estimates for this year’s haul range between 200,000 and 220,000 tons, easily beating last year’s record of 188,000 tons, but it will do little to quench the world’s thirst. Consumer demand for wine is growing faster than the grapes needed to produce it.
“It’s a pretty dramatic increase from last year and it bodes well for going into 2014,” Trent Ball, the vineyard and wine technology chairman at Yakima Valley Community College, told growers Thursday at the Washington State Grape Society annual meeting in Grandview.
Economic experts at Morgan Stanley made headlines last month with their forecast of a 300-million-case worldwide undersupply of wine — a “shortage,” as media outlets were quick to call it.
Either way, Washington’s growers will have plenty of customers for their wine.
“There will definitely be demand for those grapes; more and more people are making wine,” said Michaela Baltasar, a spokeswoman for the Washington Wine Commission.
Don’t expect this year’s record mark to last long, either.
“Next year will be bigger, the year after that will be bigger,” Smasne said.
He doesn’t have a crystal ball, of course. A variety of weather factors could prove him wrong, but all other things being equal, his prediction will come true.
Consumers drink more wine every year, wineries make more every year and growers plant more acres every year to keep up.
“For the foreseeable future, we are going to be adding additional acreage,” said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, far and away the largest wine company in Washington.
“Every year when we sit down to decide how many acres we’re going to contract, that number gets bigger,” he said.
The state currently has 43,000 acres.
Just this year so far, 32 new winemakers joined the licensed ranks for a total of 809, a figure that rises weekly.
And adding to this year’s good fortune, the weather cooperated.
“We had pretty much the ideal winter and fall in 2013,” said Todd Newhouse, owner of Upland Vineyards in Sunnyside and president of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
The winter brought no deep freezes — sustained temperatures in the teens — to harm the vines. Spring brought little frost damage to buds. Hail and rain — which caused fits for cherry growers — managed to spare most vineyards.
And the overall warm weather did growers a favor. The summer of 2013 was one of the warmest in the past decade, with the highest number of growing-degree days, a measure of collective temperatures for growing conditions, according to Washington State University’s weather scientists at the Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.
And this year’s warm weather stretched so late in the fall that a few growers didn’t finish harvest until this week. Organizers of the grape society’s annual meeting speculate that their dip in attendance — 175 people compared to 200 last year — is due to some growers still working on their farms.
Meanwhile, vines have fully recovered from a deep November 2010 freeze that forced growers in some places to prune down to the ground.
Still, Washington’s wine industry is a drop in the bucket worldwide.
California alone is pressing 4 million tons this year, roughly tying the state’s record set last year. Some wineries ran out of room, according to industry magazines.
Even with all this growth, the world wants more.
That led to the wine “shortage” narrative.
In October, the economists at Morgan Stanley Research estimated that the world’s wine supply was 300 million cases below demand. Newspaper and TV outlets pounced on the story, jokingly advising everyone to drink up while they could.
Now, other experts are attempting to debunk the “shortage.” (The International Organisation of Wine and Vine, based in France, claims production is climbing faster than demand.)
Shortage or not, world wine consumption grew by an average of 2.5 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the Wine Institute, based in San Francisco. U.S. consumption growth oupaced that with 4.4 percent a year for the same time frame and jumped another 3.5 percent percent in 2012. China’s growing middle class likes wine more every year, too.
Meanwhile, wine-producing giants France and Argentina had horrible weather this year, the Wall Street Journal reported. Some places lost 20 percent of their crop.
In the United States, the so-called millennial generation — those who came of age around the year 2000 — is driving a lot of the increase in demand, said Baltasar of the wine commission.
“That group’s really open to drinking wine in a way the previous generation wasn’t,” she said.
She said limits of water rights and competition with other crops for land eventually will cause the supply curve to level off.
For now, however, Smasne in Grandview is enjoying the growth.
The fourth-generation descendant of Lower Valley homesteaders is capitalizing by producing roughly 50,000 cases this year; 15,000 of his own Smasne Cellars labels, the rest as custom winemaking for others.
But he still has to actively market, carefully researching how he prices his bottles, blends his grapes and purchases his barrels.
“It’s easy to make, but it’s harder to sell,” he said.