The proliferation of new wineries in Washington State has slowed in the past couple of years, but the landscape today is radically different from even 15 years ago. As recently as the early 1990s the Washington wine scene was dominated by a few large players who also owned a high percentage of planted vineyard land. Today, most of the excitement is being generated by small, quality-minded wineries, and the industrial-scale producers are mostly competing at the low end of the market.
Cabernet and Merlot are Washington's most serious and successful varieties, with Syrah rapidly increasing in popularity thanks to the efforts of some talented newcomers. Red wine is generally growing as a percentage of total production of premium wines, even if Riesling still has considerable commercial importance.
Most of Washington's grapes are grown in the desert east of the Cascade mountains, in the Columbia and Yakima River Valleys, where annual rainfall is so low that the vineyards must be irrigated. The vines in Washington benefit from long daylight hours during the summer, and a longer growing season than California (grapes are usually picked well into October). Although daytime temperatures can be quite hot, frequently surpassing 100 degrees, generally cool September nights allow the grapes to retain healthy acidity, resulting in wines with noteworthy intensity of varietal character. The greatest threat to grape-growing in Washington is winter frost, which can sometimes be severe enough to kill vines, as it did during the winters of 1996 and 2004.