Washington State's total wine grape acreage has more than doubled in size in six years, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's first study of total state vineyard acreage since 1993, the Washington Wine Commission announced today.

Total vineyard acreage in Washington State's wine appellations grew from 11,100 acres in 1993 to 24,806 acres in 1999, the USDA report found. Wine grapes are now the fourth most important fruit crop in Washington State behind apples, cherries and pears, the USDA said.

"There is greater demand for Washington wines than there is grape supply, even with the increase in vineyard acreage," says Washington Wine Commission Executive Director Steve Burns, a factor he attributes to the quality of Washington wines. "Premium wines sales are the fastest growing category in the industry, and the quality of Washington wines has consumers asking for more," says Burns. Red Wine Grapes Overtake White Wine Grapes

Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grape varieties accounted for 9,500 acres of the new vineyards. With the new plantings, red wine grapes now outnumber white wine grapes, a significant change since 1993. The shift in varietal mix is important because it aligns Washington State vineyards with market demand for red wines and underscores the success and prominence of Washington Merlot in the world market.

"Washington State has earned an international reputation for its Merlot at a time when U.S. consumer demand for Merlot in particular and red wines in general is at an all-time high," says Burns. He noted that according to the A.C. Nielsen report, Merlot is now the number one selling red wine in the country. "Despite the increase in vineyard plantings, most Washington wineries have found it necessary to allocate their products because of high demand for their wines," Burns added.

In 1993, white grape varieties represented 64% of the total vineyard plantings in the state; premium red grape plantings represented 36% of the plantings. In 1999, red grapes grew to represent 56% of the state's total vineyard acreage; white grapes represented 44% of the total.

The top three selling varietal wines in the U.S. market now also dominate Washington vineyard plantings. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon now represent 70% of the total vineyard acreage in the state. In 1993, these top-selling premium varietals represented only 52% of the state's total acreage. "The change in varietal mix speaks to the health of the industry and the growing demand for Washington State wines," Burns said. Syrah, one of the hottest grape varieties in the market today and still not extensively planted in California, now represents 1,500 vineyard acres in Washington State. The variety grows exceedingly well in the Columbia Valley vineyards of Eastern Washington where rainfall is limited to 8 inches annually and July and August daytime temperatures average in the 80s. New Vineyards, New Wineries

The state's increase in vineyard acreage has helped support the growth of Washington State wineries. In 1999, a new winery opened every 13 days, according to the Washington Wine Commission. In 1993 there were 80 wineries in the state, that number has grown to 145 today.

More than 2,350 acres of new vineyard are expected to go in the ground this spring, an increase of nearly 10% over 1999 total acreage.

According to USDA's state statistician, Doug Hasslen, the value of last year's wine grapes in the state was $64 million. The quality of Washington State's 1999 grape harvest rivaled and may surpass the highly touted 1998 vintage, according to winemakers who describe the 1999 wines as having abundant flavor, excellent balance and intense color. "In total, more than 70,000 tons of premium wine grapes were harvested last year," Burns said.

Washington State ranks second in premium wine production in the United States behind California.