Washington Wines & Wineries

Seattle wine writer Paul Gregutt’s new book Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide has just been published by the University of California Press. It is the kind of wine book that brings immediate pleasure and promises to be a useful companion in the future. I especially appreciate Gregutt’s sense of history. Knowing history always helps me make better sense of what I see today.

The book is organized into three sections. The first provides background in the form of brief surveys of the history of wine in Washington, the AVAs, the grape varieties and the top ten vineyards. The chapter on grapes explains where and how each varietal fits into the Washington wine puzzle and a brief list of “best bottles.” This is just about only place in the book where Gregutt (hereafter PG) ranks individual wines, which is fine with me. There are lots of places to go for wine ratings and rankings (including PG’s own blog at http://paulgregutt.com/) and a book is actually the wrong place to do this because of the dynamic nature of the wine market and the less-than-dynamic time frame of book publication. Lots of interesting and useful information is presented here in a lively style.

The second section provides usefully detailed descriptions of more than 100 Washington wineries (out of the 500+ wineries currently producing). An innovation here is the use of a 100-point scale to rate the wineries (not individual wines). PG rates each producer according to style (30 points), consistency (30 points), value (30 points) and its contribution to the development and improvement of the Washington wine industry (10 points). Everything about this rating system is subjective, of course, but I find it interesting nonetheless (although I must admit that my first reaction was not so favorable — Karen Wade encouraged me to take a second look at it and I am glad I did). Consistency and value in particular are two factors that are important to wine buyers but that do not always show up clearly in the rankings of individual wines. A reputation for consistency and value is a good thing.

The top winery in Washington? Quilceda Creek, with its perfect 100 Robert Parker point Cabernet Sauvignon, also gets a perfect PG score (30/30/30/10). Leonetti ranks second with 98 points (30/28/30/10). Columbia Crest, a volume producer, earns a surprisingly high 92 points (26/26/30/10), reflecting its good value and all that it (and Chateau Ste Michelle) have done to promote Washington wines in general.The part of the book that is most directly relevant to this blog comes at the end, when PG considers the future of Washington wine, asking some pointed questions to industry leaders including Ted Baseler of Chateau Ste Michelle, Bob Betz, Tom Hedges, Allen Shoup and David Lake. One of the questions is, how well do Washington wines compete in the global marketplace (and how can they do better)? Here is summary of some of the responses:

1. Although Washington wines are currently exported to 40 foreign countries, the export market is not yet very significant. Most Washington wine is sold domestically.

2. Profit margins on exports are lower than on domestic sales, so at this point exports are done either for personality satisfaction (the ego factor) or as part of a long term market development strategy. There are good economic reasons to privilege domestic over foreign sales now, although that could change in the future as competition for the U.S. market intensifies.

3. It is difficult to sell Washington wines abroad because no one really knows that they are. Are they like California wines (in which case, why not just buy California wines and be done with it)? David Lake says that he tells people that Washington wines are as different from those from California as New Zealand wines are from Australian products. I think that comparison is both valid and persuasive, but …

4) Foreign consumers generally don’t know when they are buying a Washington wine because the bottle doesn’t say Washington except in fine print on the back. New Zealand wines, on the other hand, typically say New Zealand clearly on the front label. New Zealand wines systematically reinforce a regional identity; Washington wines do not.

The source of Washington wines is usually listed by AVA: Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and so forth. You and I might know that all these wines come from Washignton, but a British supermarket customer or Japanese restaurant patron probably doesn’t. The AVA system that individual wineries use to differentiate their products from others in Washignton makes it more difficult for Washington wines in general to develop a clear identity of their own — the sort of identity that’s needed for successful global market penetration.

5) New Zealand’s success in the global wine market is clearly on everyone’s mind. New Zealand’s growth was made possible by the exceptional quality of one wine: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. That wine opened doors around the world for all New Zealand wines. That’s what we need, several of the experts say, we need one distinctive Washington wine that we can promote aggressively. That signature wine will carry the rest of the industry into the global market.

Yes, yes, but which wine? Jancis Robinson famous said that Washington Merlot is as good as it gets for Merlot, but so what? She didn’t seem to think that you could build a global market identity on the back of merely Merlot. (She doesn’t have much that is good to say about Chardonnay, either. Don’t get her started.)

6) So what wine will it be? Winemakers who have already invested a lot in establishing an identity for their products are unlikely to want to shift attention to a different varietal, AVA or designation in order to help establish an Washignton State Wine brand that is of uncertain value to them. Hard to imagine that a consensus will be easily reached.

So maybe it will be left to the market to decide. I think that’s how it actually happened in New Zealand.

It would be ironic if Washington’s special wine turned out to be Riesling, the varietal on which the industry was built in the 1970s and one that is experiencing a market renaissance today (Riesling is Jancis Robinson’s favorite wine, I think). Washington is the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines, but they don’t get much respect here compared with red wines, even though some of them are very good. (Hmmm. The Germans who make great Riesling prefer to drink red wines, too.)

Maybe Riesling is it and we just haven’t realized it. It would be ironic if Washington winemakers and consumers were the last to know what the region’s signature wine really is!

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