Taste the Washington Wine Market

Demand meets Supply in Seattle

Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery in East Wenatchee, Washington asked me if I’d like to pour their wines at the big Taste Washington event in Seattle on Sunday. I jumped at the chance, of course, because you hardly ever get to see supply and demand in the wine market at work in such a personal way. I will admit that I enjoyed this opportunity and I might have been a little too enthusiastic at times. I think my boss, Robin Wade, had to restrain me at times from talking up the wines and the winery more than I should. (Robin is my student at Puget Sound during the week, but she was my supervisor on Sunday at her family winery’s tasting table).

Taste Washington is a big event: more than 220 wineries, 70 restaurants and a long list of what I would call “lifestyle product” vendors ranging from Viking, the maker of high end kitchen appliances, to Maserati, the Italian sports car. Click here to download a pdf of the program. People paid $125 to attend the VIP tasting from 2-4pm. Then the doors opened to the “masses,” who paid $85 for unlimited tastings from 4-8pm. Many of the VIPs were industry people – winemakers, distributors, restaurants, wine shops, and so forth. The “masses” were a very mixed group that I’ll discuss below. I guess about 3500 people came in all.

The event is all about giving things away. Wine is sampled, but cannot be sold. Restaurants give samples of food. No cash changes hands once you are inside the room, but I suppose that exchanges can be arranged for future delivery. Apparently someone bought a Maserati ($135,000) off the show floor. There was a moment of silence (while everyone drew a breath) when that was announced.

The Supply Side of the Pour

The list of wineries was long and diverse. Columbia Crest makes at least 200,000 cases each of some of their Two Vine wines, for example, while Benke Cellars, located near us in the exhibition hall, has a total output of just 200 cases. Some of the most prestigious wines in Washington were represented (DeLille Cellars was across the aisle from us and Quilceda Creek was across the room) alongside humble family start ups. Fielding Hills was one of several wineries in a sort of intermediate position: a small family operation, but one with an impressive record of ratings and reviews and hence a built-in audience among wine enthusiasts.

What do wineries gain from giving away wine at tasting events like this? There needs to be a benefit, especially for the smaller wineries who may pour away a couple of percent of their annual production. Some of the large volume wineries seemed to use the event to show that they were about more than just fruit forward popular premium supermarket wines. Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, poured these wines

  • 2005 Boreal, Columbia Valley $30
  • 2005 Ethos Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $38
  • 2006 Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills $22
  • 2007 Eroica, Columbia Valley $22

and Columbia Crest offered these

  • 2005 Grand Estate Merlot, Columbia Valley $11
  • 2004 Reserve Red Walter Clore, Columbia Valley $44
  • 2005 H3 Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills $15

These are very good wines – on average several steps above what you would probably taste for free at the winery. I like the Eroica quite a lot and I wish I’d found an opportunity to taste the Walter Clore. The Grand Estates Merlot is a great value in my opinion.

I spoke with a famous winemaker – he was treated a bit like a rock star – who spent most of his time in close conversation with customers, distributors, and fellow winemakers. He said he thought it was important to be at the tasting and to make personal contact, but he wasn’t sure if it had much effect on sales. He was “preaching to the choir,” he said, talking with current customers and business clients more than making new ones. I wonder if he’s right. I like to say that wine is good but wine and a story is better. A story about talking with a rock star winemaker adds a lot of value to a bottle of wine. Maybe he was just being modest.

Mike and Karen Wade are certain that this event benefits them by connecting them with the trade network and giving wine drinkers who read about their wines in magazines (but often cannot find them on local shop shelves) an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. I certainly think the wines made a good impression and even created a bit of a buz in the room as word spread. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the market.

Spit, Don’t Swallow!

Spit! We were told to encourage people to spit the wine rather than swallow it so that they would not get tipsy so soon. The trade visitors often did spit, as you have to do if you are really going to taste a lot of different wines, but most people didn’t. They did dump out extra wine into the spit buckets, however, which was a good thing. The woman who came around to empty the spit buckets every 15 minutes estimated that she had collected 20 gallons by 6pm.

Like the organizers, I was worried about the alcohol problem. Faced with 200+ wineries pouring maybe 700 different wines – and you with a bottomless glass until 8pm – it is easy to see how things could get carried away. I only talked with a few tasters who had clearly had too much to drink, however. Most people seemed to understand the problem and, even if they didn’t spit, they tried to limit consumption so that they could continue tasting.

The people on the other side of the table were an interesting collection of wine people. The $125 VIP tasters were mostly trade people, as you might imagine, many with well-defined agendas of people to meet and wines to taste. It was fun to talk with them to get an insider view of the event and the business. The $85 general admission tasters were perhaps younger than I expected (many in their 20s) and more diverse in their apparent knowledge of wine. Many were wine enthusiasts, of course, armed with detailed notes and Parker numbers, looking to taste specific wines, interested in every detail from vineyard to barrel.

Others were “image seekers” (to use Constellation Brands’ Project Genome taxonomy – see next post). They didn’t know as much about wine but they wanted to learn. It was fun to meet them because we were pouring a 2005 Cabernet Franc – a varietal many of them had never tasted before – and I enjoyed watching them make up their minds about what was in the glass. Finally I would say that I met some “traditionalists” and even some “overwhelmed” consumers (it was easy to be overwhelmed at this event, to be honest, with so many wines and wineries present). They were spending $85 to try to figure out what was new and what they liked. That seems like an expensive education until you consider how fast you can burn through $85 on failed wine experiments.

People always ask me if interest in Washington wine is a bubble that will someday pop leaving broken wineries in its wake. It is difficult to be sure about bubbles (ask Alan Greenspan about this) and I actually worry that there might be a supply side wine bubble shaping up and a shakeout coming (Paul Thomas, a pioneer Washington winery, closed shop last year). But the demand side looked strong to me as I poured my measured tastes on Sunday. Education is the key to sustainable growth in the wine industry and I met a lot of people who seemed to be committed to broadening and deepening their knowledge of wine. The Washington wine industry can only benefit from this. That makes Taste Washington a more important program than I thought it would be.

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