Are Washington Wines Coming of Age?
“The perfect climate for wine.” This is the claim of the Washington State Wine Commission. Just because you say it, does that mean it’s true? Is this statement akin to the little engine puffing, “I think I can, I think I can?” Hot on the heels of being adorned with Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator, Winemaker of the Year by Wine & Spirits, hosting the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference, Washington is finding itself in an identity crisis. While many in the press are raving about wine quality, varietal diversity, and value, it still seems that the general public (outside of the Northwest) is unaware that Washington makes more than apples, planes and Microsoft products.
Think back to when you were 25 years old. You were just coming of age. You were full of dreams, plans and goals, but you were still slightly immature, arrogant, and in need of some refining. This is Washington Wine 2010. Even the oldest of Washington wineries is under 30. Many are still exploring their strengths and recovering from failed relationships. This is the coming of age of Washington wine.
I write this as I sip on three wines from one of Washington’s most respected and oldest wineries, L’Ecole 41. Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker, in talking about the economy says, ”It has taken its toll on the wine industry, slowing the ultra premium tier and giving many of us pause to look back, examine our strengths and weaknesses and refocus our plans for the future.” It is my belief that Washington produces some of the best wines in the world that nobody is drinking.
We could talk all day about distribution problems in the %^&#’ed up system we have in America, but California wineries don’t seem to have a problem getting their wine on every wine list from here to Poughkeepsie. One of the hurdles Washington wineries need to overcome is scale. California produces nearly 4 million tons of grapes each year. Washington sits at roughly 150,000 tons. Per winery this breaks down to California wineries producing approximately 571 tons of grapes each while Washington wineries produce only 214 tons. Even at the most basic math, not only does California have 9 times as many wineries, they EACH produce nearly 3 times as much wine. Are Washington wineries too small? Does the boutique winery hinder the national awareness of Washington wine?
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Lettie Teague reports, “When I went looking for Washington wines in New York, traditionally one of the state’s strongest markets, I came up empty-handed.” I’ve seen this scenario repeated on several occasions as we’ve promoted Washington wine twitter tastings and trying to orchestrate tastings with fellow wine writers. The only wine available at a national level seems to be Chateau St. Michelle Riesling, Columbia Crest Two Vines (if you’re lucky Grand Estates) and maybe Hogue and Charles Smith brands. Washington produces some amazing wine, but will anyone be able to melt at the taste of a 2004 XSV Cabernet like I did a few months back? Or, can the readers in Roanoke, VA find this magnificent Apogee from L’Ecole?
Are quality and volume attainable?
10 years ago 80% of the Washington wine brands did not exist. 10 years ago California had twice as many wineries as Washington does today. Growth combined with scale makes brand awareness a difficult proposition. In my opinion Washington needs greater brand awareness. The commissions that help promote the state should focus their budget and efforts outside the state. Does Seattle need a Taste Washington event to promote Washington wine? Aren’t you really just preaching to the choir? How about a Taste Washington event in Atlanta, GA? Let’s see the Washington Wine Commission bring 200 wineries to the 2011 Rhone Rangers in California! That would make an impression. Seattle (and Spokane) is already on board with buying local. In a recent article, Mike Veseth of the Wine Economist says, ” The lack of regional identity may be a serious issue in the long run, I think other problems are more pressing right now.” I disagree. Regional branding is what Napa and Sonoma have done right. Where the hell is Columbia Valley? Does anyone know where Snipes Mountain is? Regarding regional branding, I think there are three areas in Washington that with a little polish, could explode in this area:
- Walla Walla – It may seem like a no brainer but this Norman Rockwell town with over 100 wineries still struggles to bring in the people. Walla Walla (holla holla), needs a bigger marketing presence and more effort put on destination appeal. Let’s face it; it’s a challenge to fly in to Walla Walla. Napa and Sonoma have the easy draw of flying in to San Francisco, not to mention the immediate population base of 6.9 million people in the bay area. If Walla Walla is going to be able to support it explosion of growth it is going to need to look for ways to bring in people beyond Kennewick and Spokane.
- Woodinville – This is an area that is obviously exploding. With 90+ tasting rooms, Woodinville gets it. Drawing on the Seattle area population of over 4 million, wineries are flocking to the area. While the grapes might not be grown there, the wine is certainly flowing. In my opinion, Woodinville will continue to see growth and will become the state’s PREMIER tasting destination.
- Lake Chelan – As a destination, Lake Chelan is positioning itself to be a strong region in the state. Estate vineyards, quality wine, and majestic views add to the romantic appeal. Chelan’s challenge lies within its infrastructure (lodging and restaurants) and its geography (3 hours from Seattle and Spokane).
Washington had always been known as a leader in QPR (quality price ratio). Recently, with the pricing slash in California wines, Washington producers have been left wondering how to compete. Wineries making less than 1000 cases per year (which make up a large percentage of Washington wineries) have a tough time selling anything under $30 and still remaining profitable. The average consumer isn’t spending $50+ on wine these days. Established vineyards can still sell through inventory, but new wineries without an established brand are struggling to survive. Brands like Andrew Will are cutting production while brands like Yellow Hawk have called it quits. Brands like Walla Walla’s Terranova struggle to get any traction on their first vintage and are threatened with closing before it began. Robert Smasne (wine maker for 20+ Washington state wineries) says, “Globally I think we still need to be conscience of our price points. We tend to go too high for the value of our wines.” I tend to agree. Asking $60 or even $80+ for wines on vines that are only 20 years old in today’s economy is modestly arrogant. In this writer’s opinion, many Washington wineries need a reality check and should bring their pricing down from the stratosphere.
Is Washington really ready to come of age? With 99% of the wineries being less than 30 years old, the state is still struggling through growing pains. 30 years ago, California had roughly the same number of wineries as Washington does today. Let’s look 30 years into the future…will Washington catch up and surpass California? The prognosis is doubtful (not related to quality but to population hubs) but the journey should lead to some of the world’s best wine.
What are your thoughts?