The Sammamish Valley’s Growing Wine Industry

Sammamish Valley Lavender FieldsIn March this year, the County Executive kicked off a study of the wine and beverage industry in the Sammamish River Valley, which is located between Redmond and Woodinville. The study is an effort to resolve conflicts that have arisen between the rapidly growing wine industry and the agricultural tradition and zoning in the Sammamish Valley.  After a four-month stakeholder process, the draft consultant report is now available.

The fundamental challenge of the Sammamish Valley is finding a way to preserve the agrarian nature of the area, while also fostering a compatible industry to make the region economically viable.  Wineries and tasting rooms that benefit from the agrarian ambiance of the Valley could be compatible with the agricultural history and culture of the Sammamish Valley. The trick is finding the balancing point between a dynamic wine industry and a thriving agricultural zone where one does not overwhelm the other.

The Sammamish Valley is one of the gems of King County due to voters who, in 1979, approved an initiative to preserve farmland around the County by purchasing the rights to develop it.  Today, the Sammamish Valley is a place where active, small-scale farming is still alive and where city dwellers can experience the countryside, pick pumpkins with their kids, or enjoy a wine tasting within an easy drive from their homes.  The commitment to preserving active farmland is being tested, however, by the challenges of running an economically viable small farm in the 21st century and the encroachment of development around the edges of the Sammamish Valley, including the growing wine industry.

In the last 15 years, the wine industry has boomed in the Sammamish Valley and King County.  In 2014, over 2 million cases of wine were produced in King County, second only to Benton County in Washington State.  In 2013, wine and related businesses generated over $357 million in revenues in King County alone.  Much of that wine and associated revenue was produced in the Sammamish Valley and Woodinville area.

The success of wineries and tasting rooms in the City of Woodinville attracts not only thousands of visitors to the area each week, it has also encouraged people to start new wineries and tasting rooms.  Ninety-seven percent of the wineries in operation in the Sammamish Valley today were started after the year 2000, with 41 percent in the last five years.  Many of the new wineries and tasting rooms in the Sammamish Valley work hard to comply with County land use codes, but a sizeable number do not comply with code and do not have required health permits.  The explosion in the number of wineries and the existence of so many that don’t comply with the code has created conflict between those who want to preserve the agrarian and rural nature of the Valley and the wine industry. In addition, the code was written 12 years ago before we fully understood how the wine industry would evolve and needs to be updated to reflect the way the industry has grown.

The Sammamish Valley Wine and Beverage Study involved input from community residents and a stakeholder group with representatives from large and small wineries, farmers, environmentalists, and business and city leaders.  The stakeholder group did not come to consensus on all issues, but did identified some areas of agreement:

  • There is strong synergy between the wine industry and the agricultural sector because people are attracted to the wineries in Woodinville and the Sammamish Valley due to their proximity to the agricultural lands.
  • The County should have land use rules that make sense in the current context and they should be enforced uniformly.
  • Efforts should be made to mitigate the negative impacts of wineries on residents, particularly in the areas of traffic congestion and road safety. The stakeholders talked about ideas such as shuttles and sidewalks, although the funding for such improvements was not identified.
  • There should be no change to the rules and boundaries of the Agricultural Production District in the Sammamish Valley.

The next step will be for the County Executive to develop proposals for code changes informed by the guidance of the stakeholder group and study results.

To learn more…

The Sammamish Valley Wine and Beverage Study

Seattle Times overview of the study

Seattle Times examples of code violation

City of Woodinville Resolution