By 2011, the state had over 43,000 acres (170 km2) of vineyards, a harvest of 142,000 short tons (129,000 t) of grapes, and exports going to over 40 countries around the world from the 740+ wineries located in the state. While there are some viticultural activities in the cooler, wetter western half of the state, the majority (99.9%) of wine grape production takes place in the shrub-steppe eastern half.
The rain shadow of the Cascade Range leaves the Columbia River Basin with around 8 inches (200 mm) of annual rain fall, making irrigation and water rights of paramount interest to the Washington wine industry. Viticulture in the state is also influenced by long sunlight hours (on average, two more hours a day than in California during the growing season) and consistent temperatures.
The early history of the Washington wine industry can be traced to the introduction of Cinsault grapes by Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla region. In the 1950s and 1960s, the precursors of the state's biggest wineries (Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Winery) were founded.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the wine world discovered a new aspect of Washington wines with each passing decade - starting with Rieslings and Chardonnays in the 1970s, the Merlot craze of the 1980s and the emergence of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the 1990s.
Washington has twelve federally defined American Viticultural Areas with all but one located in Eastern Washington. The largest AVA is the Columbia Valley AVA, which extends into a small portion of northern Oregon and encompasses most of the other Washington AVAs.
These include the Walla Walla Valley AVA, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, the Wahluke Slope AVA, Lake Chelan AVA, Naches Heights AVA, and the Yakima Valley AVA, which in turn also encompasses the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Snipes Mountain AVA and the Red Mountain AVA. The Columbia Gorge AVA is west of the Columbia Valley AVA.
Washington's only AVA located west of the Cascades is the Puget Sound AVA. The Ancient Lakes wine-growing region is currently seeking federal AVA status.
The earliest grape vines planted in Washington State were at Fort Vancouver in 1825 by traders working for the Hudson's Bay Company but it is not known for sure whether wine was ever produced from these plantings.
The first people who were definitely known to produce wine were German and Italian immigrants who planted their wine grapes in Washington during the 1860s and 1870s. Washington was one of the first states to usher in the start of Prohibition, going dry in 1917 and shutting down most of the state's wine production. Some scattered grape growers stayed afloat during this period selling grapes to home winemakers but nearly all the state's commercial wines went out of business.
Following the end of Prohibition, Washington's fledgling wine industry was based primarily on fortified sweet wine production made from the Vitis Labrusca variety Concord. The Nawico and Pommerelle wineries were the most widely recognized producers, making millions of gallons each year of sweet jug wine made from Concord and other varieties.
In the 1950s, the planting of Vitis vinifera saw an increase spearheaded, in part, by the work of Dr. Walter Clore and Washington State University which conducted a series of trials on which grape vines could produce the best wine in various soils and climates of Washington.
The roots of the modern Washington wine industry can be traced to the middle of the 20th century when a group of professors from the University of Washington turned their home winemaking operation into a commercial endeavor and founded Associated Vintners (later renamed Columbia Winery) and focused on producing premium wines.
The Nawico and Pommerelle wineries were merged into a new winery that would eventually become Chateau Ste Michelle. With the hiring of Andre Tchelistcheff as a consultant, Chateau Ste Michelle and Associated Vintners became the driving force in premium wine production for the early modern Washington wine industry. Grenache was one of the first Vitis vinifera grapes to be successfully vinified with a 1966 Yakima Valley rosé earning mention in wine historian Leon Adams's treatise The Wines of America.
The 1970s ushered in a period of expansion, with early vineyards being planted in the Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla and Red Mountain areas. The 1978 Leonetti Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was featured on the cover of a national wine publication and touted as the best Cabernet of vintage.
The 1980s saw further expansion with the opening of large-scale family-owned wineries such as Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole N°41, Barnard Griffin and Hogue Cellars that soon won many awards from both national and international wine competitions. In 1988, Chateau Ste Michelle was named "Best American Winery" and in 1989 five Washington wines made Wine Spectator's "Top 100 list" for the first time.