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.

Scale

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?

Brand Awareness

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

Pricing

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?

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drinknectar

Owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA. (@nectarwine) Publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine (@spowinemag), author, speaker, consultant and internet marketer with Nectar Media (@nectarmedia)

32 comments on “Are Washington Wines Coming of Age?

  1. Jim Wilkerson

    Nice post and interesting suggestions, Josh. I think one place where Washington is doing well is social media presence. From my perspective, WA wineries seem to be over-represented, on Twitter especially (but by bloggers like you, too).

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Jim,

      Thanks but I’m not sure I agree with WA Wineries having good presence on social tools…there may be some stand out folks but I think there could be more quality conversations happening. There are a lot of bloggers in the state and they wave the flag pretty high. We’ll see how the next 10 years shakes out for the state.

      Josh

      Reply
  2. Tamara Belgard

    What about Spokane???? You’ve hit the nail on the head though with this post. Washington wine has been in serious need of some national branding help. Teaching the big, wide world that younger wine regions are able to produce wines of quality is a painstakingly slow process, but people’s eyes are being opened, in good part because of blogs like yours. Kudos!

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Spokane definitely has potential to be a wine destination and don’t get me wrong…I’ll continue to do my best to see that it happends :)

      Maybe it’s just because of the proximity, but it seems that Oregon has done a great job of branding itself in a short time.

      Reply
  3. Ryan Pennington

    Good piece, Josh. Regarding marketing outside of the Northwest, or taking Taste Washington on the road, we’ve been doing that for years. In fact, that’s the primary focus of what we do. We brought 85 wineries to Chicago last September, and we’re getting ready to do it again this November. Washington, DC, will be the next target market after that. We’re also exploring taking our 20something event on the road. I don’t think local marketing and national marketing should be seen as mutually exclusive, however. With just a 25% share of the total wine market in Washington State, we need to continue to grow our close-in markets – the bread and butter for most of our states wineries. At the same time, we need to continue to open new markets nationally and internationally to help sustain the growth of the industry over the long term.

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Ryan, I’m so glad you stopped by. Thanks for shedding some light on your marketing efforts at the Wine Commission. In my opinion there are plenty of people who would continue the local marketing tastings if the WWC stepped out entirely and focued their money elsewhere. Events like Seattle Wine Awards, Mad Merlot, Wine Rocks, Taste Spokane, (the list goes on and on) do as good of job of promoting local market share.

      I don’t think mass tastings build brand awareness as well as other efforts…but I’m sure I could be debated about that.

      Now you’ve given me another idea for a post…

      Reply
  4. Ryan Pennington

    My pleasure, Josh.

    I absolutely agree that there are a host of local events that do a great job showcasing Washington wines. Still, with just a 25% market share, I think we could always use more fuel for the fire. And the Commission has significant resources that can help us collectively meet that challenge.

    I just mentioned a few tasting events, since those were the examples that you cited. Of course, our national and international marketing encompasses much more than tastings. We’ve spent millions on advertising just over the past few years. We’ve hosted successful events for key wine and lifestyle media in New York, London and around the world; and we’ve hosted scores of these influencers here. We’ve also hosted tours bringing many of the nation’s elite wine retailers and restaurateurs to Washington State.

    I couldn’t agree more that we have a long, long way to go, and our growth will be incremental. I do think it’s worth noting how far we’ve come, however, and the great work that is ongoing and is still to come.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  5. Mike Supple

    Great post Josh. I think the biggest hurdle for WA wines (and any boutique winery that can’t ship 10,000 cases to a distributor in every state) are the archaic wine laws in this country. Yes, as you mention this can be argued all day, but the simple fact is that you can’t create demand for something nobody has experience with.
    I think the few large WA wineries like Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest are in the best position to help Washington as a whole. There is a great lesson that can be learned from Oregon right now: Oregon wineries are working together to brand Oregon. Washington needs to do the same thing. If the large wineries work on branding Washington, then demand around the country will increase. How many times will a sommelier in New York be willing to disappoint customers looking for a good Washington Merlot before he gets on the phone and brings some in?
    Keep the fight going strong – there are too many great wines from WA for the world to keep missing them!

    Cheers,
    Mike

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Mike you make a great point about Oregon. Being just one state north, I really feel like they’ve done a great job of coming together to create a very good brand. I liked your tweet…the greatest wines you’ve never had (and not because of money). It is very true.

      Josh

      Reply
  6. Bill Eyer

    Great post Josh, you make many good points, especially about the age of the Washington Wine scene. In this economy [hate that phrase] it may be a tougher sell boutique wines with price points over $30 especially if they don’t have good visibility in major wine appreciating [drinking] markets, but their are two other sales “killers” and would love to hear your thoughts on them.

    From my perspective, one is the random prices for shipping, where some are exorbitant and have the appearance of gauging. The other thing killing DTC sales is the new tax burden heaped on out of state internet shoppers.

    Because of my experiences at the recent WBC 10 in Walla, Walla I became enamored with wine from this region and will be using some space on my blog to highlight the wine scene there. I started a group here in San Diego called the San Diego Twitter Taste Live, and in our upcoming meeting on Aug. 28th we will have a Red Mtn vs. Paso Robles Syrah smack-down, where we will taste blind and let the wines go head to head to declare a winner.

    Reply
  7. Stacy Woods

    A couple of rambling thoughts IMHO

    OR might be a young industry but it was quick to define itself as a producer of world class Pinot Noir thanks in large part to pioneers like David Lett who correctly and successfully matched varietal to site. As you say, “Just because you say it (world class), does that mean it’s true?” OR set out to prove it. OR was quick to garner an international reputation and international investment with the 1975 Eyrie beating out the best Pinot Noirs in the world in the 1979 Wine Olympics in France.

    While it may be natural to do so WA tends to be far too focused on comparing themselves with all of CA. Few would argue that a WA cabernet sauvignon is exactly the same as one from Sonoma, Napa, or the Central Coast, and thank goodness for that. Washington AVAs and producers need to define what makes them unique in the marketplace whether that be terroir, varietals or both before you send the “Taste WA” tour bus out on the road. WA has the ingredients necessary to step away from the shadow of CA, unique terroir and unique intellectual capital.

    WA wine is defined by one large company in my market (MA). WA wine is synonymous with Ch. Ste. Michelle. The large family of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines produces a wide range of excellent products. In my mind, Ch Ste Michelle has done much for “brand WA.” However, their economy of scale gives the company the ability to merchandise and keep prices low. Pricing coupled with the influence they have with distributors make it tough for smaller lesser known WA producers to penetrate the market and still make a profit on the East Coast.

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Stacy, I appreciate your comments here! Very interesting to hear the perspective from a Mass. gal

      Reply
  8. Chris

    To answer a couple of your questions, yes, some people DO know where Snipes Mountain is, and my bet is Todd Newhouse et al will eventually get a reputation akin to Red Mountain because the wines coming off of Snipes are pretty exceptional.

    Second, the people in Roanoke CAN find Washington wines if they know where to look. A town just about an hour north of Roanoake, Woodstock has an amazing wine store that has about 40-50 PAc NW and Washington wines. I saw L’Ecole, Tamarack, Alexandria Nicole, Abeja, on those shelves in Viriginia. So penetration IS possible. Finding the right distributor who is willing to place the wines in the right marketplaces I think is key.

    In general you raise some very good points though and though I agree W2, W-ville, and Chelan have tourist appeal, the estate vineyard model will always have romance, and all three of the areas you mentioned strugle at times explaining where their vineyards are. That’s not a problem some other places in the state.

    Bill, Pretty neat about your Syrah Showdown, what have you picked from Red Mountain?

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Chris, the vineyard appeal IS very romantic BUT look at where it is popular…Napa, Sonoma, Yamhill, Willamette. They ALL benefit from large population hubs that can feed the machine with locals and make it easy for tourists to get to. In my humble opinion, it will be a large struggle for Snipes Mountain (or even Red Mountain) to establish itself as a major destination. While both of these places are amazing to visit, they are just not accessible by the masses.

      Josh

      I too am curious about Bill’s Syrah showdown and what he is going to pick!

      Reply
  9. Chris

    Access for the masses is indeed critical, Josh, but sometimes the masses will seek it out if it’s worth it. For some reason images of Kevin Costner and Iowa corn come to mind :)

    I see that as one of the potential long term benefits for all of Washington, particularly eastern Washington from WBC’10. We (primaily Catie and others) attacted the wine blogging community, folks who like the logo shows, love using their megaphone to an area most had never visited and knew little about. The surveys of bloggers and sponsers aside, the fact that Bill and other bloggers were excited and impressed with W2, Red Mountain, and are continuing to seek out these wines and talk abou them etc… will have LONG lasting impact.

    Reply
  10. Joshua S Sweeney

    Regarding the access for the masses, I’ve definitely seen that on the East Coast. Look at New York… the Finger Lakes are mere hours away from New York City, New Jersey, New England, and Pennsylvania. Several million people who can make a wine tour into a day or overnight trip.

    Virginia benefits similarly: the D.C. area wine industry has a massive hub of suburban and urban areas in Maryland, D.C., and Central Virginia that feed them massive amounts of traffic a mere half hour to an hour away.

    I’ve also seen the contrast in my North Carolina tours… Childress winery, right off a major highway (85) near Greensboro with a parking lot built for close to 100 cars, had barely 20 people in the tasting room and on the grounds on a Saturday afternoon. We were the only patrons of Cellar 4201 for a good bit between 2 and 5 on a Saturday, and West Bend had maybe a dozen people milling around early afternoon. The first time we went, we were the only people around 1PM.

    The nearest “big” region, the Raleigh area, is 2 hours away, and after that? Richmond/Charlottesville, 3 hours away, and we Southerners don’t like to leave home much. So it goes.

    Location, location, location.

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      I think what happens is that the population base helps to grow the word of mouth. Napa may be a great place to grow grapes (as is Walla Walla), but if you put Napa in the middle of Oklahoma…would anyone travel there? Certainly not on the same scale.

      Josh

      Good conversation here!

      Reply
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  12. brent

    Interesting fire starter Josh – well done.

    The business guy in me certainly gravitates to the location and branding arguments that many of the commenters have made and head nods in knowing agreement.

    But the “artistic restless explorer” in me questions why the fuss? Who cares if the whole world doesn’t know about WA wines – that’s part of what makes traveling to and exploring new places so special. When I dine in Seattle or shop at Fred Meyer, yes, I see California and international wines but I see lots of wonderful new labels, brands and value in wines from WA (and OR) that I can’t get at home in California. I never drink Cali wine (and most certainly not Napa wines) when I’m in WA – too many incredible WA wines to choose from. So why belabor the basis thesis of the blog post that somehow brand recognition and mass distribution is “better”.

    I get the same kind of vibe when in BC (my birthplace) – all the locals want to talk glowingly about BC wines and lament the fact that people south of the 49th parallel only know Canada for kick-ass icewines. (As a Canadian I understand the “little brother” ego syndrome that constantly seeks external validation). What’s the downside of not having a huge “export” market for your wine? Does it make the wineries less viable? Dunno. But again I love going to Vancouver and tasting things that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

    Perhaps the business-side will win out and Washington wines will take their rightful place adorning the shelves of every Target, Costco and Walmart in the country (as well as fine restaurants, wine bars and premium wine shops).

    But part of me things that would be a shame.

    My $.02
    Brent “Avg. Wine Guy”
    @OWineReview

    Reply
  13. Benjamin Smith

    The idea of identity is vexing for many reasons, not the least of which is that Washington does virtually every warmer climate grape well. Very well, in fact. Syrah? Super. The Bordeaux family and even Tempranillo find sites of beautiful expression here. On the other hand, Napa is synonymous with Cabernet, Oregon Pinot. With so many solid viticultural choices a regional grape identity is hard to define – one of the few instances where our strength is also a detriment.

    I also think that timing has played against us. Napa was the first American region to do Cabernet well, with the only role model being Bordeaux. The same was true for Oregon looking to the Burgundian Pinot model. Along comes Washington only to find the the position of trendsetter had been filled by older but not necessarily better candidates. The marketing high ground has already been claimed, and we’re forced to play catch up.

    As for pricing there may be wineries that have entered the market too aggressively, but in the long run market forces take care of them. I don’t think pricing has lead to identity issues for the state in general as most of these brands aren’t in broad distribution. If the global consumer doesn’t see them, they won’t contribute to the more global worldview of Washington.

    I also believe there is a core of more mature producers whose wines are still a bargain at their pricepoint – Andrew Will comes to mind – but the fact is that virtually every winery making juice over $15 has to look at their pricing strategy in this environment. This is not unique to Washington. There are startling numbers of properties for sale in Napa.

    Reply
  14. Jamie Peha

    Good topic for discussion Josh. I was bothered by Lettie’s mention that the New York market has lost it’s lust for Washington wine and that they are not readily available in that market. While marketing in NY is expensive, its the one market where Washington really needs to be because of all the influencers there in my opinion. Granted not all wineries have distribution there but there are enough that do and enough that are on great restaurant wine lists to continue to burn the fire there. It doesn’t have to be done in a big, expensive way each time, but there needs to be a “steady drip on the rock” to quote a good friend of mine…you know who you are! I do agree that outside of Washington some of the perception problem seems to be that because Washingtond does so many varietals well, there isn’t “one” we hang our hat on. That said, with the Riesling Rendezvous some of that is being addressed. This is one reason I thought the timing was good to create the Merlot Gone Mad concept. Since we do make the best Merlot in the country why not seriously promote another varietal that can help to fly that flag and bring in some national media to get the word out to the masses. To me there are many ways to bring Washington wine education to the people. I do agree that in huge tastings where so many types of wines are available the message can be diluted. It was a challenge to market Washington wines when there were 380 wineries in the state…now with almost double that amount trying to accommodate all their needs and please all audiences is difficult. There are a lot of people as you say doing a good job of promoting the industry and supporting the efforts of the Washington Wine Commission. Its a job that must be done by many people and since we are all working to reach this common goal, we could all do a better job of working together to achieve it.

    Reply
  15. Marc Weinstein

    I think you’ve captured the branding solution. It is not about individual wines from individual wineries or their individual brands or whether they are using social media to build those brands. It is about destinations. Most people who take wine vacations don’t travel to see a winery or sample a wine, they travel to experience Bordeaux or the Rhone or Napa or Sonoma or….well, you get the picture. Awareness is ultimately about regional brands, about creating the image of a destination that provides a full, fun and rewarding wine experience.

    Our best bet for making this happen in Washington is Woodinville. Proximity to a population center and the airport are huge and necessary catalysts. Woodinville will become our Sonoma, either slowly (perhaps very slowly) through natural evolution or quickly if the right organizations set it as an objective.

    Reply
  16. Bob Witelatch

    I have known Jamie for years and I am a big fan of her work and knowledge of the Washington State Wine Industry. But I think one of the major problems is the Washington Wine Commission. I’m not disparaging the employees or even the director, they are executing the will of the board, my problem is with the board. We are spending millions of dollars a year on promoting Washington Wine in such great Washington markets as Japan, England and Canada ( has any small winery ever made money selling to Canada? I haven’t) and after the recent beating in the Wall Street Journal the Wine Commission came out the next day and advertised that they are scheduling a “taste Washington” in Cancun. I’m sure that will be a hot market. I think the WWC needs to take a lesson from the Walla Walla Wine Alliance who with a lot less money have done an amazing job of putting Walla Walla on the map, and it’s not just the AVA, I would bet that more than 50% of all the wines from Walla Walla are made with Columbia Valley AVA grapes.
    What Walla Walla and Washington State both have in common is a collection of small wineries making very good wine, in every AVA, and I believe we never will be a collection of mega wineries sending thousands of cases from each winery to every state. Our marketing model needs to be about who and what we are, not what it would be nice to be. I’m a small winery and I am currently distributed in 30 states, 24 of them east of the Mississippi. That’s where the people are who will buy our wines, not London, or Whistler or Cancun. With all due respect to Ms Teague, I was just in New York and my wines are available in a number of wine shops in Manhattan, including Morrell & Co. The wineries are doing our part in getting the wines into the market, but we are not being supported with the advertising dollars that are available to the Wine commission.
    I agree that the Washington State wine industry is at a cross road, hopefully we will make a wise decision, but looking at our track record I’m not betting on it.

    Reply
  17. Dave Woods

    Branding drives consumer demand and consumer demand drives distribution. If you are a small winery trying to market in Florida, New York or Arizona, FOB source points become a critical factor in distribution.

    A distributor with 2-3 Northwest brands might put together 1-3 pallets for shipment at a time. Shipping that small quantity from TMS to Florida is very expensive. That same distributor might have 15-20 CA wineries and is able to ship full trucks. This is compounded when you include non-California wines warehoused and shipped from CA.

    A TMS delivery for me to AZ runs $7-9 case and requires a 2 week order lead time. My CA shipments are $2.60 case and order lead time is 5-6 days. The increased costs and effort associated with source points can be a deterrent for many distributors and translates to higher retails as costs are passed through.

    An analysis of source points and uniform FOB pricing needs to part of a winery’s distribution plan.

    Reply
  18. Sherman

    As Mr. Woods has so sagely pointed out, pricing becomes a determinative issue and the underlying costs involved in getting the wine delivered to markets that are further away and have additional unique factors (Dave, how much additional is a refrigerated truck to make a delivery to AZ in August?) *all* drive the price points up.

    The same wine in AZ is $4-$6 a bottle less in SW Oregon, whether we’re talking entry-price point Cooper Hill Pinot Noir or Woodward Canyon Artist Series. That does make a difference “in this economy” (yes, I hate having to use that qualifier, as well) but it is today’s reality.

    And speaking of Oregon, the state branding we’re talking about here is primarily the Willamette Valley and covers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and maybe a little Pinot Gris. That’s the perception of the wider marketplace and that’s how Oregon wine is seen across the country.

    The marketing of “brand Oregon” has, for the most part, ignored the huge diversity of grapes, wine styles and emerging winemakers in SW Oregon (Rogue, Illinois and Umpqua Valleys). The folks is SW Oregon are doing what Walla Walla does, make some great wine across the spectrum of grapes and styles. Yet, very little is heard on the national scene about SW Oregon…and the latest kicker? How the Willamette wineries are featuring some wines they’ve made using fruits sourced in SW Oregon!

    If the Oregon Wine Board followed the direction of the Washington Wine Commission (granted on a smaller scale, as OR doesn’t have the resources of WA — yet), and drove appreciation for Brand Oregon across the country, they would achieve larger sales for *all* Oregon wineries and greater consumer awareness of *all* the regions of Oregon.

    Reply
  19. Sean P. Sullivan

    Josh, great post. I was actually working on a post earlier this week about why Walla Walla will never be Napa that touches on many of the same points (should have it up next week).

    As Ryan P said, I believe it is critical that Washington grow its consumer base both within Washington (it’s far too low at present) and beyond Washington. In terms of growing beyond Washington, as some others have mentioned and you mention in the post, there are two large obstacles in my opinion. 1) many of the producers make very small amounts of wine meaning that very limited amounts will show up in various markets and its somewhat impractical for wineries and distributors to get them there and 2) the state-by-state regulations make things extremely difficult to do so, especially on smaller wineries.

    The number of small producers is not going to change any time soon. While I believe more medium-sized producers (50k to 200k) will emerge in Washington in the coming years, the state will still be dominated and distinguished by its small wineries. It is a strong part of our identity. Therefore, we must, must, must make it easier for these small wineries to get their wines into people’s hands. This means going a very difficult road of trying to change various state or even national laws. This is arduous but I believe that it must be done, in addition of course to battling back ridiculous proposals to make direct shipping more difficult.

    Reply
  20. Benjamin Smith

    Mr. Whitelatch,

    I think the Wine Commission has done a pretty decent job of balancing priorities between the megaplayers in the state (who fund a large chunk of the commissions budget) and the little guys who have really pushed the awareness envelope for the state. There are hard decisions to be made here. There are also hard decisions between trying to pull wine into a market through consumer events and pushing wine into a market through trade tastings. They’ve balanced both well. I agree that the Walla Wallans have done well marketing their town. Hoever, it is always easier to market a compact, homogeneous region than one so diverse as our entire state. Then too, evidence suggests that their marketing effectiveness is somewhat limited, or else why would there be so many W^2 winery tasting rooms opening in Woodinville? The W^2 market is not growing despite great marketing efforts.

    I also agree with Sean in that direct market access would be extremely beneficial to all small wineries.

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      I’m really enjoying the extremely well thought out responses here. The intelligence in the comments has far surpassed the thoughts in my post! – May have to do part II to compile what was said.

      Thank you SO much for responding. Washington certainly has come a long way but there are many challenges that need to be addressed before we can be recognized as the premium wine destination that our wine obviously deserves credit for.

      Josh

      Reply
  21. Jack C W

    Josh Great post I have really enjoyed it and the responses. I had just a couple of comments (.02) to add. From that Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague and the demise of Washington wine in NY I thought this could be stemmed by tasting. While someone form NY may not buy off the shelf WA Red from Red Mountain, there is no way once you taste it you would not be, at least informed. More tastings in retail establishments. I think everyone can remember how a great tasting has opened up a winery, a region or state to its possibilities with wine.

    California is bigger than Washington on the grape tonnage, however, don’t forget much of the tonnage in California is box, jug and other quantity based wine or wine products. I don’t think many in Washington State are looking to compete with Gallo with such brands as “Andre” or Carlo Rossi.

    Finally what you mentioned on marketing; i think the large organizations need to commit to consistent advertising in publications, radio and/or TV. Just in wine publications consistent marketing of the states wines could have big impact. Additionally, give wineries the option to buy into the ad if they want to highlight themselves or because they are having an event. Washington makes great wine and the core people know it, but they need to reach the fringes to grow, the people who don’t know.

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Jack, most people thought Lettie’s article was lacking in scope. What did she check, one or two shops in her upstate NY town. I don’t think it gave an accurate representation of the state of the industry…but…it did raise some questions in my mind (hence this post).

      Regarding marketing…I think some TV spots could go a long way along with a well done social media campaign.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  22. Jan

    Just returned from a short wine tour into Sonoma and Russian River Valley – almost without exception when we mentioned being from Washington and Washington wines, the tasting room staff would say – yes, you are making some good Pinots up there.. What? We’ve got a long way to go my friends…..

    Reply
  23. Gail Puryear

    There is a wine-growing region within 2 1/4 hours via freeway from Seattle. It is called the Rattlesnake Hills. Our wineries are not in warehouses, airports, or autoparks. They are in the vineyards – just like Napa. If you consider the drive from SFO to Napa, we are actually easier to access than Napa. There are 17 wineries in the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail and several other fine wineries that are not members of the trail. And yes, we have lots of visitors. On Saturdays we staff our tasting bar with four people and a backup.
    The Rattlesnake Hills is the forgotten AVA of Washington because so many people from Prosser Flats opposed it, but the science overcame the prejudice with the TTB and the AVA was approved in 2006. It is almost as warm as Red Mountain and way warmer than W2.
    As for getting out of state distribution, it is a cart/horse situation. I have tried to get out-of-state distribution, but since no one has heard of our winery, it didn’t happen. Going to Taste Washington Where Ever does not work because you have to be distributed to attend. How are you going to build customers if you can’t showcase your wine and get a distributor. Crazy.
    Right now we are selling 7500 cases of wine a year through our two Washington Distributors and our tasting room. We don’t need the added expense of distributing out of state.
    The last point is shipping. We have to ship to TMS, in/consolidate/out to Sonoma in/consolidate/out to get to NY. It just don’t work.

    Reply

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