The Yakima Valley’s famed wineries attract attention, give farmers options and drive a big chunk of the economy.
However, they are small potatoes when it comes to employment.
“We’ve got all of these smaller businesses and they really are the wine industry,” said Barb Glover, executive director of Wine Yakima Valley. “It’s kind of what gives it romance.”
Columbia Crest in Paterson is by far the state’s largest winery in terms of volume. That goes for employment, too, said industry leaders.
The winery’s parent company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, has about 1,000 employees overall throughout the West Coast, but officials declined to share specific counts about their facilities.
The Hogue Cellars in Prosser is the second-largest producing winery in the state but currently has only 42 year-round employees. Many wineries that produce 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year are run by one or two people, employing extra help only on busy weekends.
However, those small operations add up after factoring in all the people who helped make that wine, including vineyard workers, truckers and cellar operators.
“It’s a value-added product, and so it goes through a lot of different hands before it gets to its final stage,” Glover said.
Overall, Washington’s $14.9 billion wine industry directly employed 14,225 workers and paid out $428 million in wages in 2011, according to an economic study from the Washington Wine Commission. That includes workers in wineries, vineyards, distribution centers, research institutions and marketing teams.
The numbers nearly double when you throw in indirect and induced jobs created, such as those at restaurants, grocery stores and medical offices that spring up near wineries, according to the report, which estimates that the wine industry employs one out of every 100 state workers.
And those numbers are growing since completion of the study.
New wineries, opening at a rate of one every 15 days, create a “ripple effect throughout the job landscape,” said Steve Warner, president and CEO of the Washington Wine Commission.
In 2011 in Yakima County, 1,916 people worked directly in the wine industry, coming in third behind King County’s 5,677 and Benton County’s 3,377.
“When you cluster them together, it’s big business,” said Deb Heintz, executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association. Indeed, about 30 wineries are located in and around Prosser, more than a dozen of them on a few city blocks called Vintner’s Village.
Meanwhile, the growth of the state’s wine industry is creating a demand for skilled labor.
The Grandview campus of Yakima Valley Community College opened its vineyard and winery technical program in 2007, turning a former grocery store into classroom space, a chemistry laboratory and a working winery.
Washington State University has begun offering undergraduate degrees in viticulture and enology, while the branch campus in Richland is building a $23 million wine science center with financial support from the state’s wineries. Central Washington University in Ellensburg also offers degree and trade classes in wine studies.
A generation ago, a student would have to travel to California for higher education in wine, said Erik Hoins, general manager of The Hogue Cellars and a 24-year veteran of the state’s wine business.
“There was nothing that really focused on wine or viticulture specifically,” he said.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.