Thanksgiving: American Wines for an American Celebration

Thanksgiving is the distinctively American holiday and we are happy to share the idea of a day of appreciation with other nations. A festive meal is generally part of the Turkey Day plan and so the question always comes up, what wines should we serve?

America: Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are many good choices depending upon the components of the meal, but we tend to lean towards American wines here at The Wine Economist office. And as Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s recent book American Wine reminds us, we do not need to limit our choices to wine from the “usual suspect” states and regions. While most of America’s wines are produced in California, most of America’s wineries (by a small majority) are in other states!

Wines & Vines reports that the United States boasted more than 7400 wineries in 2012 and of those about 3500 were located in California. The Californians made a vast majority of the wines measured in either value or volume, but there are active wineries in all of the states and so lots and lots of  “local wines” for anyone wanting to support the local industry.

Most of us have tasted wines from California, Washington and Oregon and while some wines are surely better than others, it is clear that the best are world class products. Perhaps fewer have sampled wines from further down the list: New York, BC, Virginia, Texas and so on. What is the state of the art of wine in these states and regions?

Well, I have tasted many New York, Ontario, B.C. and Michigan wines at Riesling Rendezvous and other tastings and I can attest to the high quality of the best wines. Idaho with 50 wineries doesn’t make this list, but we tasted many outstanding wines when we visited there in October.

An opportunity to sample the wines of Missouri, for example, or Oklahoma does not frequently present itself. Most of the wineries are small and rely mainly upon cellar door sales. Very few make it into the broader distribution channels. It is a rare treat to be able to taste them.

Great American Wine Festival

Which is why we motored down to Portland recently to join the fun at the Great American Wine Festival, an event organized to coincide with a wine tourism conference. I’ll paste a list of the wine regions represented and the specific wines that they poured at the bottom of this column.

The event presented a cross section of American wine ranging from regions with high name recognition  (Sonoma County, Santa Barbara) to others that would be better known to wine historians than to contemporary wine consumers (Maryland, for example, plus Virginia and Missouri).

How were the wines? Well, first a couple of caveats. No one is going to send a bad wine to an event like this even if some questionable wines are made. And I might have cheated a little bit — there were too many wines to taste them all so I let the winery recommendations from Jancis’ and Linda’s book steer me to particular labels in many cases.

Wine Thanksgiving

And as with any tasting, we liked some of the wines better than others. But I would say that overall the quality of the wines we tasted was impressive and they can make us proud of American wine. There was something to enjoy at each table and several of the wines really surprised and delighted us.

Choose well, Americans, and your local wine (or in any case an American wine) will be the highlight of your Thanksgiving table — something we all can give thanks for!

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Thanksgiving update: Our wines were

Appetizers: NV Domaine Ste Michelle Columbia Valley  Brut sparkling wine

Turkey dinner: 2006 Boedecker Cellars “Stewart” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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Here is a list of wines presented by the regional wine groups present at the Great American festival. Click here to see all of the participants, including individual winery representatives not on the list below. Thanks to the Great American Wine Festival for their hospitality and to everyone we met at the tasting. Keep up the great work!

COLORADO WINE

Boulder Creek: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Canyon Wind Cellars: 2012 Anemoi Apeilotes

Carlson Vineyards: 2012 Cougar Run Dry Gewürztraminer

Colorado West: 2012 Elks Gewürztraminer

Ruby Trust Cellars: 2011 Gunslinger

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COLUMBIA GORGE WINEGROWERS ASSOCIATION

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2010 Cabernet Reserve

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2012 Riesling

Jacob Williams Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Jacob Williams Winery: 2009 Syrah

Memaloose Winery: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Memaloose Winery: 2012 Trevitt’s White

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IDAHO WINE COMMISSION

Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier

Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red

Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah

Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry

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Livermore Valley Wine Country

Concannon Vineyard: 2010 Conservancy, Cabernet Sauvignon

Garre Vineyard & Winery: 2009 Primitivo

John Evan Cellars: 2010 The Paracelcian, Cabernet Sauvignon

Las Positas Vineyards: 2009 Casa de Vinas, Cabernet Sauvignon

Little Valley Winery: 2010 Tempranillo

Longevity Wines: 2012 Livermore Valley, Chardonnay

McGrail Vineyards & Winery: 2010 McGrail Reserve,Cabernet Sauvignon

Murrieta’s Well: 2012 The Whip, White Blend

Nottingham Cellars: 2011 Casa de Vinas, Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tamas Estates: 2010 Double Decker Red (blend)

Wente Family Estates: 2012 Morning Fog, Chardonnay

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 MARYLAND WINE

Basignani: 2007 Lorenzino Reserve, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Chardonnay

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Late Harvest Vidal

Boordy Vineyards: 2012 Dry Rose, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Verdot

Boordy Vineyards: 2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve, Eastern grown Cabernet Franc

Crow Vineyard and Winery: 2012 Barbera Rose, Barbera, Vidal

Elk Run: 2011 Syrah

Knob Hall Winery: 2012 Willow, Traminette, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc

Knob Hall Winery: 2011 White Oak, Chardonnay, Traminette, Vidal

Old Westminster Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard: 2010 EVOE!, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon

2011 Columbia Valley Viognier

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MISSOURI WINES

Hermanhoff Winery: 2010 Vidal

Les Bourgeois Winery: 2011 Premium Claret

Montelle Winery: 2012 Chambourcin

Montelle Winery: 2012 Dry Vignoles

St. James Winery: 2009 Norton

St. James Winery: 2012 State Park Seyval Blanc

Stone Hill Winery: 2012 Chardonel

Stone Hill Winery: 2011 Chambourcin

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OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION

Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo

Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton

Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese

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SANTA BARBARA COUNTY VINTNERS’ ASSOCIATION

Dragonette Cellars: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon

Dierberg/Star Lane: 2011 Dierberg Chardonnay

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: 2012 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Foxen Winery: 2012 Pinot Noir

Hitching Post: 2008 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Perfect Set Sta. Rita Hills

Lafond Winery: 2011 Pinot Noir AVA Sta. Rita Hills

Lucas & Lewellen: 2008 Cabernet Franc

Refugio Ranch Vineyards: 2010 Barbareno, Santa Ynez Valley – Syrah / Petite Sirah

Santa Barbara Winery: 2012 Chardonnay AVA SB County

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SOUTHERN OREGON WINERY ASSOCIATION

Agate Ridge Vineyard Ledger-David Cellars

Cliff Creek Cellars Plaisance Ranch

Deer Creek Winery RoxyAnn Winery

Del Rio Vineyards & Winery Serra Vineyard

Devitt Winery TesoAria Vineyard & Winery

EdenVale Winery Trium Vineyard & Winery

Kriselle Cellars

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VIRGINA WINE

Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve

Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage

Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier

Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red

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THE WINE ROAD NORTHERN SONOMA COUNTY

Alexander Valley Vineyards: – 2009 CYRUS

Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2010 Sin Zin

Silver Oak Cellars: 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonestreet Winery: 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay and Broken Road Chardonnay

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Twomey Cellars: 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

What’s Ahead for Idaho Wine?


Everyone we met in Idaho was keen on the potential of this sometimes overlooked wine region but at the same time aware that greater success — in terms of sales, recognition, and premium prices — is far from guaranteed.

Idaho, as I discussed in last week’s column, is unique in many respects, but it is typical of emerging American wine regions in that it is searching for the key that will unlock the latent potential of the people and the land.

Idaho Wine Surprises

One thing that surprised me was the vitality of the local wine market. Although Idaho has wine roots going back to the 1860s, the industry and the local wine culture was destroyed by Prohibition and was slow to recover afterward even by American standards.

Boise — the state capital and largest city — has changed enormously since I first visited over 30 years ago. The downtown now boasts both a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s — a sure sign that there is a critical mass of resident upscale consumers — and the wine department of the Boise Co-op supermarket grew so large that it took over a nearby building (it was crowded with interesting wines from Idaho and the world and buzzing with activity when we visited).

Pluses and Minuses

Boise impressed me as quite cosmopolitan. We had lunch on the Basque Block, for example, a cluster of Basque restaurants, social clubs and community center. Boise celebrates the cultural diversity that its Basque community brings and is working to strengthen ties (including wine connections) with the Old World. A group of local winemakers recently traveled to Spain to exchange ideas with wine people there, which seems like a great idea given the success some wineries are having with Tempranillo. A lot of pluses here.

And some minuses, too. Idaho wine is not well known outside the region and this is a disadvantage for those with national ambitions for their wines although obviously less of a factor if you define your market territory carefully to include the mountain states and parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Focused effort seems to be what is needed. Greg Koenig looks to be on the verge of success in China, for example, where buyers may not know where Idaho is but they understand what he has to offer — delicious Snake River Valley Riesling Ice Wine!

Building Brand Idaho

The economic structure of the Idaho industry is not ideal with big dog Ste Chapelle dwarfing the rest of the industry. It would be great if Ste Chapelle were to play a hegemonic role, working to grow markets and develop the supply chain for all of Idaho wine the way that Chateau Ste Michelle did for Washington wine in that industry’s early days. Or at least that’s what I was thinking  before my visit.

But these are different times and Idaho is a different place. Ste Chapelle is part of the dynamic Precept Wine group which has important wine assets in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and competes in a market environment where important new players (Gallo in Washington and Kendall Jackson in Oregon) have recently entered. Ste Chapelle must necessarily act as part of an ensemble, not as a solo performer, and while I think that great success is possible for the winery itself, it might not necessarily be able to pull the rest of Idaho wine along with it. The smaller wineries need to make their own paths and they seem to realize this fact.

I noticed that some of the new Ste Chapelle “soft” releases were designated “American Wine” even though they are for now at least made using only Idaho grapes. This will help the Ste Chapelle brand if and when they scale up production using fruit from other areas, but it doesn’t promote Brand Idaho. Not a criticism,  because I understand the business logic, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, however, it must be said that the Idaho wine industry would be much less vital without Precept’s key vineyard investments, which provide grapes for many smaller producers.

Opportunities

What will it take to bring Idaho wine to the next level? Well, I’m tempted to say that a big critical success would do it and high scores certainly help. The quality of the best wines makes strong ratings more than a dream (and in the case of a few wines, already a reality). But the market is very crowded right now and my winemaker friends tell me that even 90+ scores don’t always have the impact on prices and sales that they would like.

Wine tourism is another strategy that holds promise. The Sunnyslope area is a short drive from Boise and a wine trail is in place although it is hampered a bit by state restrictions on signage that limit the ability of individual wineries to direct buyers to their tasting rooms. Visitors from adjacent states represent an obvious marketing opportunity that effective wine tourism promotion could enhance.

New investment in vineyard assets would be welcomed hereabouts, as I wrote last week. But what will it take to get major vineyard investments that would fill the barrels and bottles that Idaho winemakers long to produce? Well, it’s complicated of course. From a strictly economic point of view the situation is that land must be worth more as a vineyard than at its next best alternative use — orchard, pasture or residential development — and this isn’t always the case.

Economic Impact

Idaho wines are often a bargain given their quality and tend to sell for much less than the Walla Walla wines that some makers compare them to. This helps sell the wines, but it also limits vineyard growth. Low wine prices dictate low grape prices, which means low vineyard land valuation.

 An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 projected that the number of Idaho wineries would continue to grow from 11 in 2002 to 38 in 2008 to 78 in 2015. The current number is around 50, much less than that estimate, and the number of vineyard acres has probably declined a bit from the 2008 level.  Is this just an understandable (given the Great Recession) pause in the upward trend or has the industry plateaued?

Too soon to tell, really, but I am cautiously optimistic. The land is there and the people, too, both thoughtful consumers and smart, hand-working producers.  I sense a new energy in America’s regional wine industries (this energy was captured in the book American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy). Idaho’s time will come.

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Here’s a list of some wineries from our visit. Sorry that we didn’t have time to visit others!

Bitner Vineyards

Huston Vineyards

Koenig Vineyards

Fujishin Family Wine Cellars

Hat Ranch Winery

Ste Chapelle Winery

Cinder Winery

Coiled Wines

Mouvance Winery

Telaya Wine Co.

Shifting Perspectives on Idaho Wine

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The view down toward the Snake River from Bitner Vineyards

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We spent a weekend in the Idaho wine country last month and I’m still trying to make sense of the experience. It seems like every time I think I know what Idaho wine is I shift my ground a little bit and see something new and usually something different.

So the view keeps changing. Rather than trying to ignore this problem, I thought I’d make it the theme of this column.

Snake River Valley Views

Let’s start with the natural elements. The main vineyard area in Idaho winds along the Snake River and some of the views are spectacular — the photo above taken from Bitner Vineyards shows one of the best.

The vineyards reach down towards the river and the slope is key both because these  hillsides provide a natural solar-collector effect (the area is called Sunnyslope), but also because cold air drainage is an important factor in preventing frost damage to the crop and freeze damage to the vines.

The view shifts when you move along a few miles. This region is a high desert plateau. A lot of the land is pancake flat, ideal for many crops but not necessarily wine grapes, especially given the cold issues. Rainfall is surprisingly sparse here so access to irrigation water is key.

Although Idaho shares borders with both Washington and Oregon, there’s no question that its wine industry is more Columbia Valley than Willamette Valley. This might seem obvious since the Snake River joins the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but it’s mainly because they share that dry plateau feature.

No sense looking for a “signature variety” in Idaho as they do (in Pinot Noir) in Oregon. No, Idaho is more like Washington — lots of grapes can thrive here (in the right spots) and lots of interesting wines are possible. A blessing from a winemaker standpoint and a bit of a curse from a marketing point of view. Riesling to Tempranillo and lots of options in between.

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Looking down to the plateau from Sawtooth Vineyard

Big Dog Ste Chapelle

From an economic point of view, on the other hand, Idaho is a world of big and small without too much in between. This is also a bit like Washington state wine, where Ste Michelle Wine Estates (including Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands and other wineries) dominates making more than half of all the state’s wine. Ste Chapelle is the big dog in Idaho to an even greater extent producing a total of about 300,000 cases of wine under the Ste Chapelle label plus other brands.

Ste Chapelle is part of the Precept Wine group these days, having been bought and sold several times since it was founded in the 1970s as the U.S. wine business went through consolidation and then financial crisis. I think there is a sense that the stability that Precept can provide is welcome after some years of drama. The largest privately held wine company in the Pacific Northwest, Precept controls half of Idaho’s vineyard acreage (variously estimated at 1200-1500 acres) in addition to its assets in Washington and Oregon.

Ste Chapelle makes several lines of wine. Their “soft” (read sweetish) wines are technically well made and perfectly in line with current sweet red and moscato-style market trends. The soft red and a soft pink wine with a subtle huckleberry flavor are the top selling wine SKUs in the state, crowding out the California “usual suspects.”

Ste Chapelle also makes smaller (but still substantial) quantities of dry wines, including 40,000 cases a year of an off-dry Riesling that nearly stole the show at Riesling Rendezvous this year. And they produce Precept’s wildly popular Chocolate Shop and Almond Roca wines at their facility.

Limits to Growth

If Idaho is the land of the big it is also a world of small. From 300,000 case Ste Chapelle we drop sharply down to 12,000 – 15,000 case Sawtooth (also a Precept Wine brand) and Greg Koenig’s operation of about the same capacity, where he makes his own products as well as those of four other wineries including Bitner. That’s a big gap between #1 and the rest in terms of size and market penetration. Not too many of the remaining 40+ wineries in the state have total production as high as 5000 cases.

What limits growth? Well, you have to sell what you make, so market demand is an obvious factor. But I got the strong sense from several winemakers that they could sell more if they could make more. Vineyard capacity is a real roadblock.

While they were glad to be able to purchase fruit from the Precept group’s 400 acre Skyline vineyard, they needed even more. Land surveys indicate that there are many good sites that could contribute to the industry’s growth if only new investors would enter the region.

Made In (But Not of) Idaho

If Idaho has not attracted as many wine growers as it needs, it certainly has attracted wine makers who see this area as a good place to live and to work. A number of small urban wineries have sprung up as wine enthusiasts from other regions are attracted here and others who have left to establish careers elsewhere return home.

Many of their wines are clearly Idaho products, but we tasted a number of them that were made from grapes imported from Washington, Oregon and even California. The practice of using out-of-state or region grapes or juice is not that uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s largest winery, King Estate, brings in fruit from the Columbia Valley for its NxNW wines, allowing them to produce a more complete portfolio of wine varieties and styles. And the  Pamplin Family Winery in the Willamette Valley is one of several that make high quality Bordeaux blend wines using Columbia Valley fruit. And of course most of the grapes used in Seattle-area wineries are trucked over the mountains from Eastern Washington.

Necessity (and limited local grape supply) dictated the use of non-Idaho grapes in some cases, but we met several winemakers who cited passion for a particular style of wine as a driving force. I did a University of Puget Sound alumni program at the Mouvance Winery tasting room while we were in Boise and enjoyed their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines made from the fruit of the family’s own vineyard in Oregon. Pinot passion drives this project and so Idaho grapes just won’t work.

What should we think about Idaho’s cross-border wineries? Well, just like everything else in Idaho wine it depends on your point of view. They certainly do contribute to the critical mass of winemaking that the industry needs to move ahead and clearly help foster what I see as a vibrant emerging wine culture (more about this next week). But I also picked up understandable concern that their efforts didn’t contribute as much as some would like to building the local industry from the ground (the vineyards) up.

Where is Idaho wine headed? My thoughts next week.

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Thanks to everyone who met with us during our Idaho visit. Special thanks to Jim and Melissa Thomssen, Ron Bitner, Greg Koenig, Gregg Alger, Maurine Johnson, Moya Shatz Dolsby, and the Idaho Wine Commission. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.

Wine in China: Government Investment, Civil Servants and Hospitality

I’m still in Australia (soon to step aboard a flight to Tasmania) and, through the magic of the Internet, simultaneously in Mendoza, Argentina, where I am a member of a virtual panel of experts (or is that a panel of virtual experts?) addressing the competitiveness of Argentina’s wine industry at the IX Foro Internacional Viniviticola. I guess you can be in two places at once these days!

Last week’s column by  Cynthia Howson, Pierre Ly and Jeff Begun on the search for Chinese terroir generated a lot of interest. Here is the second part of their report. Come back next week for the final installment.

Government Investment, Civil Servants and Hospitality in China

by Cynthia HowsonPierre Ly and Jeff Begun

 In the last post, we talked about the diversity of Chinese terroir and how the distinctive features of each region might be developed. It’s no secret that the government is a major player in the Chinese economy and wine is no exception. Each winery we encountered depends on some form of support or relationship with local government officials, usually at the local level (town, county or prefecture). And each wine producing region has a provincial government that is committed to upgrading in some way, but the issues they face and the resources they can provide vastly different.

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In this photo, a couple poses at the “World Wine Walk”, a street in Yantai, Shandong, where city has built a beautiful space to highlight the wine industry. Presumably, wine shops or other stores will fill the vacant spaces, but for now, it is just a very pretty place to walk near the beach and restaurants.

The State as Public Investor, Institutional Facilitator and Quality Control Monitor

Crucial government support can come in the form of investment, cheap credit, infrastructure or institutional support, like facilitating contracts or coordinating farmers. Each of these is critical and is likely to affect the types of wineries that will be most successful in each region. For some wineries, relationships with farmers require careful, daily supervision. In one case, the village head provides much of the human resource management for a winery, coordinating day laborers and making sure the vineyard has the right workers at the right time. Elsewhere, a manager for a large corporate winery said it’s not so much about financial support as good policy, helping to coordinate with banks and institutions. “They don’t interfere,” he said.

In Ningxia, local governments encourage new wineries by providing electricity, irrigation, pavement, signs on the road, subsidies for imported vines and even funds to invite foreign consultants and prizes for award-winning wineries. In Shandong, local governments coordinate lease agreements with farmers so that a winery can establish a single vineyard and control its grapes even if dozens of different farmers control the small plots of land.

Interestingly, the role of government as regulator came up less frequently in our discussions, but it is one of critical determinants of a successful wine industry. Pollution, pesticides and food safety are all critical features of a healthy vineyard and are very sensitive topics in China. Indeed, a 2012 scandal over contaminated wine stoked concerns about the largest producers and whether food safety inspectors should become stricter about pesticides. We took this photo of a pesticide-laden cluster at a major state-owned winery (although this may be just a very large demonstration vineyard).

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Needless to say, this is not what the grapes looked like in most of the vineyards we visited, including those of small farmers.  However, several wineries expressed concerns about producers using pesticides that are banned in China (where regulations are already looser than in Western countries). This is a particular concern in Shandong, where humidity is most threatening and where, it’s worth noting, some farmers are hesitant to eat the skins of their own grapes. Here, efforts to tighten enforcement of environmental regulations could be facilitated by ongoing efforts to promote agribusiness over more diverse types of wineries.

Another Public Investment: Government as Customer

The most successful wineries benefit from government contracts for banquets and from civil servants as high end customers. Those sought after consumers are not just wine drinkers, of course, but collectors, and most importantly, those who purchase wine as gifts. It’s no secret that gifts are an important part of business negotiations in China. Some experts have pointed out that a market for extremely expensive Chinese wine has benefited from civil servants and business magnates who are looking for an appropriately priced gift. Such a gift need not be consumed. At other times, negotiations might involve fancy banquets or informal meetings, where the spirit of friendship is facilitated by a meal and a bottle. Indeed, most people we spoke with emphasized food and drink as part of maintaining good relationships with local officials.

But conventional wisdom has it that civil servants have seen their belts tighten, a trend that the new President, Xi Jinping, is eager to continue. The national government has made some public efforts toward curbing corruption in addition to increasingly strict monitoring of accounts. Of course, careful control of public expenditure sounds great to a political economist, so we were surprised when even a taxi driver called it a “disaster.” The “disaster,” we are told, is that when civil servants are constricted in their use of expense accounts, the entire hospitality industry is affected, including hotels, bars, restaurants, taxi drivers, and of course, wineries. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that our informal conversations are just that. We can’t say whether civil servants have actually changed their spending habits or if, for example, announcements in the media have stoked the rumor mill, but we did find it curious to encounter the same perspective from very different people in the hospitality industry and to note that it was echoed by Beijing Boyce. We asked a driver in Shanxi province whether he sees a lot of tourists and he explained how changes in government spending have hurt the tourism industry. We discussed the prices of Chinese wine with a foreign barrel merchant in Shandong province and he explained how changes in civil servants’ accounts are crushing the market for low quality, expensive gift wines.

If our barrel merchant and others are correct, there may be important changes in Chinese supermarkets. If wine drinkers seek out higher quality at the same time as consumers limit their purchase of exorbitantly price gift wines, we might start to see some of the delicious wines we tasted taking up more space at the supermarket. Actually, we are pretty optimistic that those delicious wines are coming regardless of civil servants’ expense accounts.

In Search of Chinese Terroirs

I am in Australia this week where I am giving a talk called “Australia on the Global Stage” at Savour Australia 2013, the international wine gathering that Australian wine is using to relaunch Brand Australia on the global scene. I will have a report on what I learn in Australia in due course, but for now I’m busy just being there.

My friends and colleagues Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly and their associate Jeff Begun have recently spent several weeks in China examining trends and issues in the Chinese wine industry. They have been kind enough to write three short essays that I will publish here while I’m away from the office. I think you will find their analyses very timely and interesting! Here is their first report.

In Search of Chinese Terroirs

by Cynthia HowsonPierre Ly and Jeff Begun

We were lucky to spend a month last summer traveling through several Chinese wine regions, meeting producers, farmers, and experts, and tasting some truly delicious wines. In past Wine Economist posts, Mike noted that China’s fragmented agriculture was the biggest challenge for Chinese wine producers. How can winemakers ensure a reliable supply of flavorful and fully ripe grapes, when they have to work with hundreds of implausibly small family-run vineyards?  Mike pointed out that the best producers are those who somehow solved this problem. Another serious and more permanent challenge comes from the climate. So how did they improve and what’s next?

The grape supply chain

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Stunning view at Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province.

Getting control over land is not easy in China and many producers still have to work in large part with hundreds of small family-run vineyards. Yet, some high quality producers have found ways to work with this difficult supply chain by developing relationships with growers. For example, Grace Vineyard, in addition to renting land to grow grapes with their own labor, works with hundreds of very small farmers, and provides them with training and credit for inputs. Grace is willing to pay the price for good quality grapes and provides incentives to farmers accordingly. Of course, at Grace like elsewhere, this takes a lot of work with supervisors going through the vineyards and checking on the work, relationships are not always easy and some compromises may have to be made in difficult vintages to sustain good relationships. But the excellent wines we tasted at places like Grace Vineyard in Shanxi, or Leirenshou in Ningxia, could not have been produced without flavorful, fully ripe fruit and a sizeable portion of it had to come from small family farms.

Of course, it is easier for wineries to secure high quality fruit when it is grown in-house, by renting land to farm with their own employees. Some wineries rent large plots of land directly from the government. Others have to rent from individual farmers, either by dealing with each individual grower directly, or by entering contracts with a village authority which then redistributes rents to individual farmer. In each case, relationships and the local institutional context determine which types of arrangements are feasible and on what terms. Future policies and reforms regarding land markets will certainly play a key role to spread existing improvements in Chinese wine on a larger scale.

Many Chinese terroirs?

So if wineries have found and continue to find ways to improve the grape supply chain, what about the climate? Isn’t China simply too difficult a place to grow high quality wine grapes? People seem to disagree on this issue but what we saw makes us hopeful and optimistic that pockets of high quality will continue to develop.

One source of hope is that China, as one would expect given its size, has many terroirs with incredible diversity. One winemaker told us that opportunities and challenges come together, and this applies to each region in a different way. This post by award-winning winemaker and consultant Professor Li Demei, does a great job explaining the pros and cons of the climate in seven wine regions. For example, toward the Northwest, in Ningxia and Xinjiang, although harsh winters require that vines be buried in winter, reliably hot and dry summers protect the grapes from disease. A reputation for limited or no pesticide use could be a strong selling point, given that food safety incidents in China (including some related to pesticide residue) have received a lot of media attention.

In Shandong province on the East coast, producers enjoy a mild winter and vines do not have to be buried. However, the location also comes with the challenge of humidity and rain during the summer, and especially at harvest. The risk is that people will use pesticides a bit too generously, but careful disease prevention programs can be developed. Emma Gao, from award winning winery Silver Heights, based in Ningxia province, told us she saw a lot of potential for Shandong winemakers, and she compared them to the Burgundians, in the sense that there are many people there willing to put in the hard work needed to overcome challenging conditions. Hardworking Shandong terroiristes overcoming adversity, how interesting would that be! It will be interesting to see future advances there, and it is worth noting that the DBR (Lafite) – Citic project is currently under construction there in a small village next to the resort town of Penglai.

Unlocking China’s terroirist soul

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Terroir labeling: the mountains of Alti-wine, and the sandy dunes of Skyline.

That’s what Mike hoped when he wrote about China in Wine Wars. There are many challenges ahead for producers of course, from contracts on land and grapes, to infrastructure and climate. But our last tasting before leaving China gave us further hope. Jim Sun, founder and chief editor of the leading industry media winechina.com, welcomed us at his China-focused cellar in Yantai to share insights, as well as five delicious wines. With passion, Jim told us the story of each of the wines he picked from regions we had not visited, to illustrate a variety of interesting microclimates. The terroir message of each wine was evident, from the Gobi desert vineyard of the Skyline Chardonnay, the vertiginous high altitude of vineyards of the “Altiwine” red produced in Yunnan province, to the proximity to a lake that keeps some Cabernet Sauvignon vines cooler than usual in Xinjiang.

Experts seem to disagree on whether China can become a serious producer of fine wine. But there are already some delicious wines, and they each come with their unique and interesting story. That may be enough to get wine enthusiasts interested in China and encourage further progress.

In our next post, we will discuss the role of government in Chinese wine.

Turkish Wines Make a Statement

“There is, perhaps, no country in the world where drinking a glass of wine in a public space has more political significance than in Turkey. Just now, that significance extends to a glass of Turkish wine drunk anywhere in the world.”

It’s Not [Just] About the Wine

We don’t usually think of wine in political terms, but as this quote from Andrew Jefford’s  recent Decanter.com column indicates, these are unusual times in Turkey and even otherwise innocent wine is caught in the crossfire. Jefford writes that

The world watched Turkey tumble into political turmoil last week. Protests over a building project … erupted into wider discontent about what many see as PM Erdoğan’s peremptory paternalism, and the sense that Turkey’s hard-won secular traditions were being gradually eroded in a stealthily managed slide towards ‘soft Sharia’.

So how does wine fit in? The answer is law number 6487, which piles additional restrictions on the promotion and sale of alcohol, including wine. This law seems a step backwards for a county that seeks to join the European Union, where wine is nearly ubiquitous . But, Jefford explains, it’s not about the wine.

What makes life for Turkey’s wine producers so singularly wearying is that alcohol is a lightning rod for these [political and social] tensions. As Turkish journalist Sevgi Akarçeşme wrote in her blog in Today’s Zaman on May 26th, alcohol is always “more than alcohol” in Turkey.  It is, she said, “an issue about which you can hardly have a reasonable public debate. …  in Turkey alcohol is not simply about a personal decision to drink or not to drink.”

A recent article in The Economist (the source of the pointed illustration above) provides additional context.

Hoteliers fret that the curbs will scare off tourists. Secularists see another step to sharia rule. After a decade under AK [the ruling party] Turkey feels a lot more conservative. Islamic clerical training for middle-school pupils has come back, Koran courses have grown and finding a drink in rural Anatolia is hard.

Recommended reading if you are interested in learning more about the controversy: Elin McCoy’s report form VinExpo on the challenges and opportunities for Turkish wine.

But What About the Wine?

So wine makes a statement in Turkey and Turkish wine, according to Jefford, makes a political statement everywhere else. So what kind of statement is it — as wine, I mean, not as a political symbol? Well, I suspect that most Americans don’t really know and would be hard pressed to find a bottle of Turkish wine to satisfy their their desire to lend support to one side or the other in the Turkish protests.

We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample a number of otherwise hard-to-find Turkish last week when Olga and her team at Vinorai (who are just breaking into the wine import business) invited us to sample some wines being considered for the U.S. market. The Turkish Commercial Attaché was there to give his blessing — wine may be controversial within Turkey but wine exports apparently are not.

The wines represented a wine range of grape varieties, wine styles and price points.  We found much to like even if we liked some better than others as would be the case in any tasting. Although there were credible wines made from international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, Sue and I were drawn to the indigenous grape varieties, especially white wines made from Narince and Emir and juicy, fruit-forward red wines made from Öküzgözü.

P1050952A Rose is a Rose

Narince and Emir are unfamiliar names to most U.S. wine drinkers, but they are not especially intimidating ones and there is no particular reason why consumers who have only recently learned to say “Torrontes” should not embrace them. If you see one of these wines in a shop or on a menu, try it. Very refreshing.

Öküzgözü is another matter of course with its Scrabble-master spelling and abundant diacritical adornment — it really looks like a Turkish name, doesn’t it?. I suppose the name alone might stop some consumers in their tracks, which is a shame because we tasted some delicious interpretations of the grape. The literal translation is “bull’s eye” or “ox eye” because the grapes are as large and dark as a farm animal’s pupil and perhaps a clever marketer can exploit that fact to entice consumers to lean in.

(Hungary’s “Bull’s Blood” wines are popular and most people who buy them probably don’t concern themselves that the wine is a blend featuring the Kadarka grape, which is thought to have been brought from Turkey!)

So how do you get consumers to try Turkish wines? Well, I’m not sure you have to get people to try them because, as Olga noted, so many Americans have vacationed in Turkey and tried and enjoyed the wines there (even if they might not have made notes about which particular varieties they liked best). It may only be necessary to reintroduce these former visitors to the wines by inviting them to relive their experiences enjoying Turkish food, culture, and of course its wine.

Beyond Politics: Wine, Food and Culture

The wine taken completely by  itself may be a hard sell, I admit, because the market is so crowded and the competition is so fierce, but the key is to present the wines as part of an integrated Turkish cultural package that draws on happy memories and associations and promises to extend them. Italian wines (even those from unfamiliar regions made from hard-to-remember indigenous grapes) have always benefited from this cultural  strategy. And while Turkey doesn’t have Italy’s prime place in American hearts and minds, there are plenty of positive associations to draw upon.

Culture, not politics, is key when it comes to selling Turkish wines in America. Andrew Jefford  is probably right that raising a glass of Turkish wine makes a statement just now, but when it comes to expanding the market for the wines, it may be best to keep divisive politics out of it and let the warm and welcoming side of the Turkish people themselves lead the way.

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Mike and Olga with Recep Demir, Turkish Commercial Attaché

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Thanks to Olga and her Vinorai team for inviting us to sample these Turkish wines. Thanks to Sue for her tasting expertise and the photos shown here.

Chilean Wine at the Crossroads


When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.

Preaching to the Choir

Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious  Strategic Plan 2020  about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.

The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of  “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.

The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:

  • Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
  • Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
  • Country Image. Chile is good for you.
  • Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.

The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine  (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)

Audacious Goals?

Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production.  The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.

Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth.  Good idea, but easier said than done.

So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with  with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report  issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.

 Something Completely Different

Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even  negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.

It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so  “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”

There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.

Getting the Message Out

One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.

This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)

Is Carmenere The Key?

Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program.  Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?

A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.

Reimagining Chile’s Wine Identity

What do you think of when you think of Italian wine? Many people think first of Italy — the place, the art, the people, the culture and the food (OK, especially the food). The romantic idea of Italy sells Italian wine. Brand Italy is stronger, it is said, than any Italian wine brand and Italian winemakers have profited from this fact.

Changing Places

The relationship between country and wine image is reversed for Chile, or at least that’s the theory I found in a recent report called the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020.  The wines of Chile are the nation’s ambassadors to the rest of the world, the report asserts. The wines of Chile have a more distinct image than Chile itself (although of course the two are related) and so when people think of Chile they think first of its wines.

I am not sure that I completely agree with this idea — “Chile” conjures up many images and associations for me — but I am willing to consider it for the sake of argument. Certainly how we think about the wines of Chile has some impact on our attitudes towards this country more generally. Chile’s wine identity, as important as it is to people in the wine industry, may have an even broader significance in terms of international investment, export sales, tourism and so forth.

Good and Good Value

So what is Chile’s wine identity? Well, for most of the last 50 years Chilean wine has been synonymous with “good value for the money.” As I wrote in a previous post, Chile has been trapped in a vicious cycle of rising expectations that has made it difficult for them to increase price even as the quality of their wines has continued to improve.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I know that it is better to be known for good value than for bad value, but in today’s very competitive global market it is also good to have products that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for. The average FOB export price of Chilean wine hovers around USD 2 per liter or less than USD 20 per case. The appreciation of the Chilean peso in 2010 combined with the difficulty of raising the USD price has really put the squeeze on Chilean wine producers.

Chile is the most trade dependent of the top wine producing countries, according to the Wines of Chile report, exporting nearly 70 percent of their production.  Wine accounts for over 2.5% of Chile’s total export earnings. So enhancing the image of Chilean wine abroad by moving it upmarket is important.

There are several ways to define a country’s wine identity and this video illustrates the current theme, Wines of Chile: The Natural Choice. As you can see the theme connects the dots of factors contributing to Chile’s complex terroir and stresses the fact that that its phylloxera-free vines grow on their own rootstocks — a  nice “natural” connection.

But broad messages like this have their limitations since by definition they cannot thoroughly take into account detailed factors that may be important to understanding and promoting the wine.  The New Zealand wine tagline is “Pure Discovery,” for example, and here in Washington the motto is “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” None of these tag lines is especially stirring or sharply defining, although the key words — Natural, Pure, Perfect — have obvious appeal.

Is Carmenere the New Malbec?

Another way to think about wine identity is in terms of grape varieties, although this has limitations, too. If you think Burgundy  you think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example. And Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon. There is much more to the wine from these regions than type of grape, of course, but the iconic varieties are straightforward identifiers that confused New World consumers can easily understand.

Wine in Chile is really about three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere. Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc together account for more than two-thirds of all wine grape plantings in Chile. These wines can be very good, but it must be said that they are cursed with that “good value” label that will be hard to shake no matter how many Wine Spectator Top 100 awards they receive.

Carmenere represents only 7 percent of vineyard plantings now, but it is seen by many as the breakthrough wine of the future, a uniquely Chilean wine that has the potential to do for Chile what Malbec has done for Argentina. The Wines of Chile report has high hopes for Carmenere both as an export product and as a tool to redefine Chile’s wine identity. But it warns against cutting corners to capture low price sales. Carmenere needs to be a premium brand if it is to serve its useful symbolic function.

Blogger Wine Tasting

Which brings us to Syrah and Pinot Noir — not grape varieties that you usually associate with Chile. They were the focus of a recent tasting organized by Wines of Chile that brought together, if that is the right phrase, a virtual group of U.S. wine bloggers including members of The Wine Economist staff. The idea was to use new media to get out the message about Chilean wine’s new directions and to help establish its wine identity among younger tech-savvy consumers. We were sent wines to sample, literature to read and provided with online access to Chilean winemakers for interactive Q&A.

Are wines like these the way forward for Chile? Syrah and Pinot Noir are high value bottled wine exports (FOB prices of $4.66 and $4.08 per liter respectively in 2009 compared with $3.37 for Cab Sauv and $2.79 for Sauv Blanc) and so they may be useful tools in this task of getting consumers to rethink the wines of Chile and what they might be willing to pay for them.

(Math note: Chile receives only about $2 per liter on average for its wine exports because lower priced bulk wine sales drag the average down while higher priced bottled wine exports try to hold it up.)

I asked the winemakers to comment on the potential for these wines on the international markets. How can Chilean Pinot Noir differentiate itself from New World Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand? And how can Chilean Syrah succeed in the U.S., where Syrah sales are slumping?

Wine Economist volunteer tasting staff: Scott, Janice, Kevin and Jeni

Their responses were not very enlightening, but I blame the online environment for that, with the group of winemakers in a boardroom in Chile trying to answer questions submitted from thousands of miles away by faceless bloggers. Anyone who has been on a conference call knows the problem. But, like conference calls, this internet session facilitated a great deal of interaction even if it wasn’t completely satisfying and so the pluses outweigh the minuses. I’ll just need to follow up, that’s all.

Tasting Notes? From the Wine Economist?

No one comes to The Wine Economist to read tasting notes, but I thought you might be interested in the team’s reactions to the wines. On the whole we liked the Pinots a bit better than the Syrahs — we just found more complexity in the glass and more to talk about. That said, I noticed that when everyone was given the opportunity to take home a partial bottle, it was the Syrahs that disappeared. Interesting.

The Syrahs were better with food, which in our case included tasty empanadas purchased from Pampeana Empanadas here in Tacoma and bruschetta with Fontina and  Huerto Azul Myrtleberry Chutney with Merken, a Chilean product that was provided by Wines of Chile along with the wines and is available from puro-gourmet.com.

I was especially interested in how college students Jeni and Kevin reacted to the tasting since young consumers are a key wine marketing target and new media initiatives like this are often organized with them in mind. Jeni said that she had never purchased a bottle of wine from Chile — her image of Chilean wine was pretty much a blank canvas –  but that the tasting put Chile on the wine map for her and she was more likely to try these wines in the future. Jeni’s image of Chilean wine changed from invisible to positive — a good sign.

Kevin had tasted Chilean Pinots before — he comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is friends with many winemaker families. In Oregon, the aim is to be Burgundian, he said, and he was surprised by a couple of these Chilean Pinots. They weren’t exactly what he was expecting, which made him want to taste more to try to understand the Casablanca Valley terroir and the winemaker styles a bit better. Another good sign

Overall I would say it was a successful tasting that answered some questions and raised many more. The question of the future of Chile’s wine identity remains to be answered, however, so I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post.

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Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate in the blogger tasting and to Amber Gallaty of the thomas collective for making the arrangements. Special thanks to Sue Veseth, Janice Brevik, Scott Hogman, Jeni Oppenheimer and Kevin Chambers for their insights on the wines and the virtual tasting process. The photos are by Sue and Scott.

Here are the wines featured in the April 2011 blogger tasting

Is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing?

Celebrate! April 17 is Malbec World Day

Every year Seattle magazine publishes a list of Washington’s top wines and wineries and identifies an “emerging” wine variety to highlight and promote. This year it was Grenache and there are some great Grenache and Southern Rhone-style Grenache-blend wines made in Washington state, so I think this was a good choice. The wines we sampled at the Taste Washington Grenache seminar were delicious (see list at the end of the post).

The Big Freeze

But Grenache, as good as it can be here, is probably pretty far down the list in the search for The Next Big Thing in Washington wine. There is only a tiny bit of it planted and I don’t think there are any “old vines” left (old vine Grenache is said to produce more complex wines). Grenache was more widely planted in Washington wine’s early days, but the vines didn’t survive the hard winters that strike the Columbia Valley every few years. Now, with greater attention to vineyard location and management practices, Grenache is making a welcome comeback.

Grenache is an up-and-comer and there are great wines being made already,  but as it is probably best viewed as the Next Next or Next Next Next Big Thing until more and older vines are on line.

But what about Malbec?

When you say Malbec everyone thinks Argentina and, since I’ve recently returned from doing fieldwork in Mendoza, naturally so do I. But what about Washington Malbec? Seattle magazine named it their hot wine variety in 2009 and so I decided to use this year’s Taste Washington event to evaluate the Malbec status quo. (Click here to view a video of last year’s Taste Washington Malbec seminar.)

Mendoza del Norte?

Argentina makes distinctive Malbec wine and there is good reason to think Malbec might do well here in Washington, too. Mendoza and the Columbia Valley are both basically deserts (the Andes and Cascade mountains respectively provide rain shadow effects) where irrigation is a necessity. Both areas get plenty of sunlight although I think vineyard elevations are higher down south.

There are many patches of Malbec planted in AVAs from Lake Chelan to Yakima Valley to Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain and Walla Walla. Statistically Malbec is the fifth most-planted black grape variety after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cab Franc and ahead of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Lemberger (according to Washington Wine Commission data).

The vines are relatively young, reflecting Washington’s comparative youth as a quality wine producer. Most of the wines I tasted were made with grapes from roughly 10 year old vines, but I know there have been recent plantings that should begin to appear in forthcoming wine releases.  Argentina has some old vine Malbec (80 years and more) in Luján de Cujo, but a lot of the vineyards (especially those in the Uco Valley) are about the same age as Washington’s.

When I ask Washington winemakers why they started making varietal Malbec they usually say that it was because the wine was too good to hide in a blend and, while I don’t dispute this, I suspect Argentinean Malbec’s market success did not unnoticed.

Malbec was originally planted here to use as a blending grape — Malbec is one of the five classic Bordeaux varietals along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Seven Hills released a what I think was the first varietal Malbec (from very young vines) in 2001, but most other makers restricted it to blends until more recently.

Price and Cost Differences

If Washington and Argentina share certain aspects of geography, they differ tremendously in terms of production cost and retail price. There are precious few Washington Malbecs below the $20 price point. The most frequently observed Malbec price at Taste Washington was $28 and many more were priced above than below this figure. Reininger’s 2007 Walla Walla bottling was the highest priced Malbec on the published listing at $51 and I think that the Eliseo Silva was the cheapest at a listed $10.

Argentinean Malbecs can be found at all price points from about $10 up, but they are biggest in the sub-$20 arena. In other words, Washington and Mendoza compete in the Malbec market, but exactly not head-to-head.

Cost differences account for some of the price difference. Malbec is in short supply at the moment in Washington (only 1100 tons were crushed in 2010 compared with 31,900 of Cab Sauv). Malbec is Washington’s most expensive wine grape according to USDA average price data. Malbec cost $1,540 per ton on average in 2010, putting it ahead of Cab Franc ($1,325) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,297).

Malbec is in short supply in Argentina, too, but land and labor costs are a lot less there. High quality Malbec costs 5-6 pesos per kilo in Argentina these days and good quality costs 4 pesos (both figures have risen significantly in the last two years).  At an exchange rate of 4 pesos per dollar and figuring 5 pesos per kilo, that converts to about $1100+ per ton, a lot less than in Washington.

Taste Washington Malbec

There was a lot of Malbec at Taste Washington, mostly from small producers.  Nineteen wineries listed Malbec on the program but I think there may be nearly 100 different Malbecs made in this state by the 700+ large and small registered wineries.

I am not an expert wine taster (which is why you won’t find wine ratings on this website), but I sampled enough quality Malbec in Argentina to begin to understand it a little. In general I found the Malbecs at Taste Washington to be very good representations of the varietal, with well integrated oak in most cases, and able to reflect the different vineyard terroirs. I think they compete very well with the Mendoza wines in the same price ranges, which is a high complement.

My favorites, for what it is worth, were from Fidelitas, Gamache, Hamilton Cellars, Nefarious, Reininger, Saviah and William Church. Special marks go to Hamilton Cellars for making Malbec in three styles: Rose, straight Malbec and a Malbec-heavy Bordeaux blend.

So is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing? Not yet — not until there are more vines on line and Chateau Ste. Michelle or  Columbia Crest get into the market and help develop it. Interestingly, Columbia Crest’s newly-appointed chief winemaker, Juan Muñoz Oca,  is Argentinean and Columbia Crest recently released it’s first Malbec — maybe that’s a sign! I’m looking forward to finding out.

Cost is still a big issue and perhaps Washington cannot compete with Argentina at the key price points. But in terms of quality? Yes, it could happen. Malbec could be Washington’s NBT.

[Thanks to Sean Sullivan and Guillermo Banfi for help tracking down Malbec grape prices in Washington and Argentina respectively.

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Taste Washington Seminars: Washington’s Emerging Varieties: Grenache Panache
Presented by Seattle Magazine

The rising popularity of this new-to-the-Washington-scene grape variety in recent times is a boon for wine drinkers.  Seattle Magazine recognizes that Washington State’s offerings with this amazing grape are truly delicious, having awarded it Best Emerging Varietal in their 2010 Best of Washington Wine Awards. Bob Betz MW, an admitted Grenache fiend, will join Seattle Mag’s wine columnist Shannon Borg and an esteemed panel as they help you discover why our region’s Grenache offerings are fast becoming some of the New World’s most distinctive and respected.

Moderator:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Panelists:
Shannon Borg (Seattle Magazine)
Brian Carter (Brian Carter Cellars)
Sara Schneider (Sunset Magazine)
Sean Sullivan (Washington Wine Report)
Wines:
2008 Milbrandt Vineyards “The Estates” Grenache, WS $25
2009 Maison Bleue “La Montagnette – Upland Vineyard” Grenache, SM $35
2008 Darby Winery “Stillwater Creek Vineyard” Grenache, CV $45
2009 Betz Family Winery “Besoleil” Grenache, YV $50
2007 Brian Carter Cellars “Byzance” Red Wine, CV $30
2008 Syncline Wine Cellars “Cuvée Elena” Red Wine, Columbia Valley $35
2008 Rôtie Cellars “Southern Blend” Red Wine, WA $35

Washington Wine’s Identity Crisis

The title of the seminar was provocative: “In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style.” Moderator Bruce Schoenfeld of Travel + Leisure magazine wanted to talk about regional wine identity. What does “Washington wine” mean in the wine glass and to consumers in the marketplace?

Schoenfeld’s search for a definitive Washington wine identity was cleverly conceived (I have pasted the details of the seminar including the list of wines we tasted at the end of the post). We began by tasting wines from three regions with clear identities: Chablis, Ribera del Duero and Barolo.

An Identity Crisis?

These wine regions have strong brands, if you think of it from a business angle. Does Washington have a strong brand in this sense or does it suffer from an identity crisis that limits its market potential? Well, there are many ways to try to answer this question and Schoenfeld deftly guided the discussion to consider several of them.

Can Washington wine be defined by grape variety?  Well, not exactly. Over the years Washington has embraced and then abandoned a string of “defining wines” from the varietal standpoint. First it was Riesling, then Merlot, then on to Cabernet Sauvignon and now Syrah and soon maybe Malbec (the featured “emerging variety” at last year’s conference) or Grenache (highlighted this year).

The problem is that none of the wine identities have stuck, so Washington must seem a bit schizophrenic to outsiders who pay attention to these things. Washington Riesling, the first attempt to define the state’s wine identity,  can be great here, but it is a white wine and red wines get most of the attention in the wine world today. Young wine regions like Washington want that attention, so Riesling fell off the radar despite its high quality and strong sales.

Multiple Identities

Merlot was The Next Big Thing and Washington Merlot can be great, too. Washington makes some of the best Merlot in the world, Jancis Robsinson once wrote, sending hearts hereabouts fluttering with excitement. But, so what? she added. Merlot isn’t a serious wine, or so some  say, and the search for that defining variety continued.

Cabernet Sauvignon was next up and Washington has produced more than its share of 95+ point Cabs. But Napa Valley seems to have the Cab identity locked up. First rate Washington Cabs sometimes sell for half the price of second-tier Napa products. That Napa reputation seems to be invincible.

So now Washington wants to show off its Syrah wines, and they can be wonderful, too. But the damn Aussies have messed up the Syrah bonanza. I think it is easier to make quality Syrah in Washington today than it is to sell it. So the search for a wine identity goes on.

A Certain Style

Maybe it’s not a grape variety that defines Washington wine, Schoefeld suggested, but a style of wine. Bob Betz agreed in principle, suggesting that Washignton wines at their best combine Old World structure with New World fruit — a tag line that a lot of us in the audience liked, even if it might be difficult to communicate to consumers.

Tasting through the Washington wines (from Riesling to Merlot, Cab and Syrah), Schoenfeld asked the panel and audience, “Can you tell that this is a Washington wine — does it have the Washington style?” He certainly thought so, but I never saw more than half the hands go up.

This was a pretty serious  winemaker, consumer, trade and journalist audience. They’ve tasted a lot of wine and a lot of Washington wine. All the wines Schoenfeld selected were interesting, but did they individually or collectively outline a Washington style? I didn’t think so. I’ve tasted wines similar to these from other regions and I have tasted very good Washington wines with completely different styles from these. I don’t claim to be a skilled wine taster (which might for once be an advantage since I am on a par with many consumers in this regard), but I can’t find a definitive Washington style.

What did I conclude from this interesting (and delicious) investigation? Having a successful regional wine identity is an advantage in the marketplace, but Washington doesn’t have one. Bob Betz may be right about Old World structure and New World fruit, but I don’t think wine style is easily understood by many consumers.

No Strong Identity. No Crisis Either.

Grape variety is easy to understand and communicate, but that leaves the question which one? If I had to choose, I would select Riesling on the basis of market penetration. Chateau Ste Michelle is the largest producer of Riesling wines in the world (yes, the world!). More Riesling grapes were crushed in 2010 (33,500 tons according to USDA data) than any other Washington variety. Washington Rieslings  (including the widely distributed Eroica, Poet’s Leap and Pacific Rim wines) can hold their own with the best in the world. What more do you want in a wine identity?

But there’s that status thing (red trumps white) and many of Washington’s iconic producers don’t make Rieslings, so focusing on this variety to the exclusion of others would in some ways be counter-productive in terms of regional identity.

So where does that leave us? Washington may lack a strong wine identity but I don’t think it has an identity crisis. Better no single identity than a bad one (think Brand Australia). Better to produce many types and styles of good wine and simply celebrate that!

[Thanks to the Washington Wine Commission for inviting me to attend the Taste Washington seminars.]

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Taste Washington Seminars / March 26, 2011

In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style

Moderator:
Bruce Schoenfeld (Travel & Leisure Magazine)
Panelists:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Shayn Bjornholm MS (Washington State Wine Commission)
Sandy Block MW (Legal Seafoods)
Drew Hendricks MS (Pappas Brothers)
Wines:
2008 Louis Michel “Montée de Tonnerre” 1er Cru Chablis, FR
2004 Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, Ribera del Duero, Spain $70
2001 Cavallotto “Riserva Vignolo” Barolo, Piemonte, Italy $75
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, CV $24
2007 Hightower Cellars Merlot, CV $28
2007 Abeja “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, CV $80
2007 Cadence “Ceil du Cheval” Blend, RM $45
2008 Betz Family Winery “La Serenne” Syrah, YV $50
2008 Cayuse Vineyards “En Chamberlin” Syrah, WWV $65
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