Southwest Utah Wine Industry Ripe for Expansion

This week the Five County Association of Governments, working in partnership with the Utah State University Extension Agriculture Program, hosted a field tour of vineyards and wineries concentrated in Washington County. The winemaking industry holds tremendous potential for job creation, economic diversification, agritourism, and is a possible avenue for lucrative agriculture evolution in rural areas. This gathering was coordinated in the effort to foster greater regional collaboration and to promote creative solutions to any barriers the industry is having towards growth. Five County AOG is thrilled to assist and support the expansion of this vibrant industry cluster within the region.

Due to moderate high-desert temperatures, areas throughout Southwest Utah and Washington County are well suited for grape growing. Winter weather stops short of bitter freezing cold and summer temperatures rarely reach the 110’s. This is important since grapes for winemaking need the cool evening periods to develop proper acidity which improves flavor. Elevation across the area also falls between the 2500′-5000′ prime vineyard threshold. Grapes are more water efficient to grow and have a higher yield per acre than traditionally widely cultivated crops in Utah, such as alfalfa. Soils throughout the region are also rich in volcanic basalt, which aids in drainage and leads to a distinct “terroir”, or flavor unique to the environment. These factors combine to make Washington County a prime area for winemaking that rivals competitors across the West Coast.

Many are unaware of the rich winemaking history here in Southwest Utah. Throughout the late 1800’s, the pioneers ran widespread operations which produced thousands of gallons of wine. Grape cultivation was a lucrative cash crop for these settlers that when turned into wine, could be used as church tithing and sold to California or other markets on the West Coast. Several local vineyards thrived throughout this period, such as the Naegle Winery in Toquerville, now a carefully preserved historic site, and a large operation ran by Swiss settlers in Santa Clara. New Mormon stances outlawing the consumption of alcohol and the gradual decline in product quality culminated to usher in the industry’s plunge to near nonexistence around 1892. Even so, vines with roots traced back to the pioneer days can still be found standing today across Washington County.

A talented group of winemakers in Washington County have revived this rich history and stand today as a shining example for homegrown entrepreneurship. Throughout the day we experienced impressive operations from the Water Canyon Resort and Winery located against the backdrop of the red cliffs in Hildale, to Zion Vineyards in Leeds. The group enjoyed lunch and productive conversation at Chanela Vineyards nestled against Pine Valley Mountain with the day culminating at Bold and Delaney Winery in scenic Dammeron Valley. Our route followed the Utah Wine Trail, which has been organized by the group as an opportunity to increase agritourism in the region and widen their visibility. These winemakers have also organized and participated in the Utah Wine Festival, an annual statewide competition and celebration of the craft.

The success of these operations is in no way due to government intervention, but by hard work and perseverance. These winemakers have made tremendous headway and are preparing to expand their enterprises across the board. It is our goal to find creative solutions to the myriad of expansion barriers identified by growers and vintners in the region. The industry is experiencing a widespread labor shortage, as well as a lack of educational and technical training resources. There also continues to be difficulty in acquiring water rights or aligning prime locations for vineyard operations with existing water resources. The progress made by these talented vintners is a testament to the growing demand for local products as well as the resiliency of the winemaking industry in Southwest Utah. FCAOG is determined to partner with the diverse group of organizations represented at this gathering to find region-wide solutions and aid this burgeoning sectors continued expansion.

Thank you to the Utah State University Extension, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Utah Farm Bureau, Washington County, Dixie Conservation District, Washington City Economic Development, and the vintners of Southwest Utah for organizing and attending!