Fluid Dynamics: Washington Wine & Spirits Update

“Washington Wine Sales in a ‘State of Flux'” — that’s that title of a recent article by Peter Mitham on the Wines & Vines website and I think Peter is right on the money. It’s a little like Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man:” You know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is.

At least some Washington State voters are feeling that way. They voted to privatize spirit sales last year, assuming that increased competition would drive prices down.

Never assume, they tell you in school, and that would have been good advice in this case, since the combination of higher taxes and fees plus distributor mark-ups have pushed the price of spirits higher on average (for now at least) than under the state store system. Click on the link to Peter’s story to see exactly how this came about (and how it could “maybe” change in 2013).

Wine Does the Wave

It has been interesting to watch as waves of reaction and response have swept over the wine market. The first wave was all about geography — would the addition of spirits to retail store shelves reduce wine’s territory? The overall answer is probably yes, but different retailers adopted different strategies. Some held the line on wine and carved out new space for spirits. Others made room for spirit SKUs by cannibalizing the wine wall. And new entrants such as BevMo added space for both.

The ready availability of spirits was a novelty at first and I think some wine sales were replaced by spirit sales on that basis initially. The fact that spirit prices are higher than before means of course that wine is now relatively cheaper in Washington — and that should have increased wine sales to the extent that the two categories are substitutes, but I’m not sure that this has actually happened. No one has come up to me and gushed that wine is now a great bargain compared to vodka. So much for relative prices? Not so fast …

It’s All Relative (Prices, that is)

It’s been about three months since privatization and the price and geography factors are starting to stabilize, but the commodity composition of the wine wall is still quite fluid. We are seeing shifts in what types of wines and in what quantities are offered for sale.

One of the changes from the old regime is that distributors are able to offer case discounts or assess broken case premiums, which amount to the same thing. Essentially this means that the wholesale cost can in some cases depend on the volume that is purchased. This is business as usual in most parts of the retail world and in most parts of the U.S. wine market, but it’s a big change for us here in Washington.  The bottle cost was the same whether you bought one or a dozen under the prior regime.

So now the relative price of slow moving wine has increased relative to fast-selling stuff and this seems to be having an effect on the commodity composition of the wine wall.  Even where the total area allocated to wine has remained the same I am sensing somewhat fewer choices as the space allocated to higher volume products is increased and the low volume space shrinks accordingly. It’s as if someone imposed a tax on low volume wine.

If a winery offers six wines at similar cost and price points, but one sells much more quickly than the others and therefore justifies a discounted case purchase, well you can see the incentive to streamline purchasing. As Peter’s article suggests, this effect can be powerful in theory but it is very uneven in practice since not all distributors (or self-distributing local producers) offer volume discounts or charge extra for smaller lots.

So the wine selection hasn’t changed much at all at some wine shops, like Pike & Western, the excellent Seattle store profiled in the Wines & Vines article. But the transformation has been quite dramatic in other places and, of course, the big box stores change the game in others ways.

It is my sense (unconfirmed by hard data at this point) that the availability of small producer wines is at least somewhat diminished, but not uniformly so and that some retailers (such as Wine World & Spirits in Seattle) have stepped in to fill the gap by offering a larger selection of boutique wines. I was encouraging small producers to focus on direct sales (rather than relying on retail channels)  before the recent changes and I think this is still good advice.

Some Gotta Win[e], Some Gotta Lose?

So what’s the bottom line? Well, I’ve actually avoided writing about this topic for several months (despite reader pressure) because I wasn’t sure. And I’m still not. It seems to me that the shoes are still dropping and the evolution of the market is not finished.

I’ve written in the past that wine markets bear  certain superficial similarities to financial markets. One of these is the tendency to boom and bust and another is that price and quantity often “overshoot” in response to exogenous shocks. Both make it difficult to predict what will happen next.

Will the reforms ultimately be beneficial for wine in general and Washington wineries in particular?  Probably, but I’m reminded of the late Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai’s reply when asked about the historical significant of the 1789 French Revolution. Too soon to tell, he said. In the case of wine, we’ve got to wait for things to settle down and for good data to be available.

Even then it will be difficult to pick apart the positive and negative effects that can be attributed to the privatization policies and regulatory reforms because of everything else that is going on. The wine market is in a rising trend generally and wine sales would have increased even without any change in the laws.

At the same time, the margin pressures that I wrote about in the Tight, Fat and Uncorked series would have put pressure on retailers and distributors to streamline their product lines even if the laws were unchanged.  It will be tricky to separate these and other factors from the retail regulatory change effect.

Big Apple Report: Where’s Washington [Wine]?

Waldo is easier to find than Washington wine in NYC.

Lettie Teague wrote a Wall Street Journal column back in 2010 called “Stalking the Wines of Washington.” In it she complained about her difficulty finding Washington wines in the New York City area. There’s just no demand, she was told, so wine shops don’t bother with Washington wines.

The Incredible Story

That’s incredible, I thought as I read Lettie’s story, since so many Washington wines are both very good (served at White House dinners, we are told) and very good values, too. Hard to believe that smart New Yorkers aren’t interested in these wines! So I decided to do a little fieldwork on the question during my recent East Coast speaking tour to see if the situation has changed.

OK, am I the only one who thinks visiting out-of-town wine shops is a fun way to spend the day? In this case I headed for the Morrell & Co store in Rockefeller Center and the Sherry Lehmann shop a few blocks away. Two wine shops is a very small sample size, so this study isn’t statistically significant, but these are the flagships of the region’s wine fleet, so surely they reveal something. Here’s what I found.

Both stores were smaller than I expected given their fame  — I guess I didn’t factor in Manhattan retail floor space costs when I imagined what they would look like. But the number of bottles isn’t as important as the quality of the selection (that’s the key to Costco’s wine selling success).

New York State of Wine

My attempt to find Washington red wines in these stores was not very successful. I managed to locate a wine from Betz Family Winery at Morrell and a modestly priced red blend from Claar Cellars at Sherry Lehmann. And that was it for Washington reds. I might have missed a bottle or two (I blame my bifocals), but even if I did the selection was pretty limited. I didn’t check the white wines — maybe there were more over there.

There were plenty of French and Italian wines. Sherry Lehmann’s Burgundy selection made my mouth water and my credit card cry. Lots of great wines from Bordeaux, too. But where was the Washington wine section? Nowhere. No California wine territory, either. They were all grouped together as “American wines,” suggesting that Sherry Lehmann’s customers might be more interested in the fine points of French geography than domestic wine terroir.  And apparently almost completely uninterested in Washington. Why?

Supply Side Theory

I talked a bit with a friend who knows New York wine business pretty well and we came up with a couple of theories. Maybe it is a supply-side problem — distribution?

Yes, I suppose that could be the case. Distribution inefficiencies usually affect the “middle market” the most. Iconic wines (and I’d put the Betz wine in this category) get distribution and so do larger volume wines (Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, etc), but in-between producers (like Claar Cellars) get squeezed out.

As you can see, my “small n” obversations aren’t completely consistent with a supply-side explanation, although you cannot rule it out, either. So what about demand?

Demand Side Theory

Maybe the demand just isn’t there as the shop owners told Lettie Teague. So why not? Well, here’s where a second set of observations is useful. While I was looking for Washington wines I also kept an eye out for Oregon Pinot Noir. And, while the Washington wines were all but invisible, I discovered a handful of interesting Oregon Pinots in each store.

So now the question gets more interesting. Why is Oregon part of the New York state of wine but not Washington? Here my NYC friend (who is a Washington wine fan) offered another theory: Oregon stands for something concrete in the crowded New York market, but Washington doesn’t.

When you think of Oregon wine you think of Pinot Noir because that’s its signature wine variety and demand-side market focus. But what do you think of when you think of Washington? Well, that’s the problem because Washington makes so many great wines but lacks a signature variety or style. I’ve written about this situation before and I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but you can see how it can be a demand side problem.

Every NYC customer who asks for Oregon wine is probably thinking Pinot, but if ten customers ask for Washington wine they are unlikely to request the same wines or types of wines or grape varieties. It’s easy to see how a critical customer mass for Oregon Pinot Noir might appear but not for any particular Washington wine.

The Gravity Theory

A final theory comes from the economics literature — you might call it the “home court advantage” theory but technically it is based on the “gravity model” that is used to analyze international trade patterns. The gravity model holds that geographical proximity is a strong predictor of trade patterns — the closer countries are to one another the stronger the force of  “economic gravity” that pulls their economies together.

I see the home court advantage at work here within Washington State and it is widely observed that while the wine industry is global, wine consumption has a strong local bias. If this theory applies to the New York case, then it suggest that Europe is New York’s home court and that the pull of French gravity is especially strong. Given the many different languages that fill conversations on cosmopolitan New York City streets, this doesn’t seem like a crazy theory at all.

Convergence Zone

A quick analysis of the Morrell and Sherry-Lehmann websites reinforces my on-the-scene observations and adds more data since the warehouse selection is so much bigger than the Manhattan stores.

I found more Washington wines in the online stores, but I was still surprised by the relatively  limited selection. And I was surprised as well that Washington and Oregon had about the same number of wines on the sales lists despite Washington’s vastly greater number of wineries and total production. Burgundy (1122 wines on the Sherry-Lehmann site) has many more wines than California (612), Oregon (31) or Washington (30).

The particular wines listed on the Sherry Lehmann site suggest that the distribution theory is part of the explanation. More high volume Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest wines and some famous name icons, but a thinner middle market selection. It looks to me like all three forces are at work here, making this a particularly complex and difficult situation.

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Readers: use the comments section below to provide your own observations and theories.

Ants, Elephants and Washington Wine

I’m just back from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meetings where I gave a talk about Wine Wars and its implications for Washington wine. Wine Wars focuses on global wine markets and the forces that are shaping them — what insights can it offer for Washington wine growers?

The Confidence Game

Wine Wars argues that reputation (and the value of  your brand) is an increasingly important factor in today’s crowded and competitive marketplace. No one has to buy your wine (or to buy wine at all given the many liquid alternatives). You have to stand for something (your reputation) and your brand has to reflect and effectively communicate that to break through the market noise. I call it The Confidence Game and reputation is a key strategy. That my friends is the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck that I talk about in Wine Wars.

But reputation and brands are complicated — a pretty obvious lesson that I only really learned a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento.  My session (on The State of the Industry) examined the wine market from the global, international, national and California perspectives. After the session I was talking with a friend who has a 50,000+ case winery in Napa Valley. I think my business is important, he told me, but I today I felt like an ant in a room full of elephants.

Life in Ant-Ville

The U.S. wine industry is very large (and California dominates it, of course) but Napa Valley is just a thin stripe at the  bottom of the wine production bar graph (compared to the bigger producers elsewhere in the state) and my friend’s winery is only a small part of that. That’s ant-ville — nearly invisible — compared with elephant-land, the domain of the large scale producers and bulk wine trade (although 50,000+ cases is not at all insignificant in an absolute sense).

Washington is ant-town, too, I told my audience. (No offence intended! Ants are great creatures. They can carry many times their own weight. A colony of ants can probably strip an elephant carcass in a few hours. Ants are powerful collectively. But individually they are pretty don’t have much clout.)

Wine world ants need all the help they can get to get their brand or reputation out there. They need to have a strong private brand, of course, but they also need a strong regional brand (Napa Valley, for example) to create a reputational wave that the winery brand can ride. That’s one reason my friend’s winery is successful, even if it is just an ant in a crowded room.

Why Elephants are Different

Elephants are different these days — and it is not entirely by choice. Elephants (wineries that produce millions of cases) need strong brands, too, but increasingly they are being forced to distance themselves from regional brands such as AVAs and rely more and more on their own reputations. The reason? The emerging wine shortages that are forcing them to search far and wide for grapes and wine to fill their massive pipelines.

Years of stagnant vineyard expansion combined with rising demand have created a growing structural shortage of certain types of wine (bad news for those of us who have gotten used to deep wine discounts in the surplus years).

This is why so many wines that used to carry regional appellations are now forced to identify themselves as “California” wines. They need to blend wine from all over the state to fill their orders. Take a look at $8-$12 Zinfandels the next time you are in the supermarket and you will see what I mean.

The Logic of American Wine

“California” is a pretty broad appellation, but I am hearing rumbles from elephant land that increased use of the previously rare “American” appellation is in the cards. And expect more bulk wine imports (legally labeled to be sure) to make their way into bottles of wines you might reasonable suppose to hold All-American wine.

Is this a good thing? Well I’m not sure that it is good or bad — it’s just necessity. And I suppose it helps the ants with their stronger regional associations to differentiate themselves from the more generic elephants. But, on the other hand, the elephants’ promotion of regional brands in the past probably strengthened them, unintentionally benefiting local ants.

Since Washington wine is a teeming ant colony, it follows that it would benefit from a stronger regional brand. What is Brand Washington? Good question. (Paul Gregutt recently suggested how Brand Washington might be better promoted — click here to read his  column.)

[At this point my talk veered into a discussion of Brand Washington compared to Oregon, Napa Valley, Argentina and Chile. This part of the talk will have to wait for future Wine Economist post.]

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Another speaker joked that Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), which is by far Washington’s largest wine producer, is the state’s only elephant, but CEO Ted Baseler objected, citing the Wine Wars description of SMWE’s “string of pearls” (or chain-of-ants?) structure.

Who am I to disagree with Ted, especially since he was on the program to announce an exceptionally generous $1 million donation to help create a Wine Science Center on the Washington State University campus in wine country!

Thanks to WAWGG for inviting me to speak and special thanks to all the Wine Wars and Wine Economist readers I met at the conference.

A Tale of Two Initiatives

Last year Washington voters went to the polls and defeated a Costco-sponsored initiative to liberalize the state’s wine, beer and spirits markets. The vote was 46.5% Yes and 53.4% No. Initiative 1100 mustered a majority in only four counties — Mason, Kitsap, Island and Douglas — and lost in the Pierce-King-Snohomish urban corridor.

What a difference a year makes! Initiative 1183, also sponsored by Costco, passed handily with nearly 60% of the state-wide vote. Significantly, only four counties voted against the ballot issue this time and all the major population centers were in the Yes column. What happened? Herewith some observations.

1. Times Have Changed

Times have changed? Yes, obviously, although this doesn’t really explain such a large apparent one-year shift in voter behavior. Still it is worth considering how much times have changed if only to gauge how anachronistic Washington’s liquor control regulations seem today.

Obviously the most important factor is our continuing recovery from Prohibition’s hangover — attitudes and beliefs about alcohol consumption have changed much more and faster than the relevant legal institutions. A second factor may be the changing demographic profile of  the state, which once featured a stronger Scandinavian-American influence that was sympathetic to what I have called “the Swedish Solution” to liquor sales. More current Washington residents come from or have lived in non-control states and see no harm in private liquor sales.

Finally, market power has shifted, with large retailers embracing alcohol as a high margin product segment. Even Wal-Mart sells wine — who would have guessed? Increasingly these firms want to be freed of regulations (apart from obvious legal age restrictions) that reduce business efficiency.

2. Political Gridlock

Most people believe that public policy should be the realm of elected officials and that private businesses should not have too much influence on the laws that regulate them. We know that special interests have more clout in practice than the civics textbooks say they should have in theory, but there are limits and they should be respected. For Costco to write its own laws was seen by some voters as crossing the line. Better to vote No and let the legislature handle privatization.

But political gridlock is the name of the game today and it seems to have gotten worse in the last year as indicated by the continuing federal budget impasse fiasco. Politicians are frustrated with their inability to take decisive action and the voters are fed up. Washington voters are usually suspicious of initiatives, but in this political environment some ballot issues are seen as a lesser evil to grid-locked legislation.

(The exchange between Sean Sullivan and Rand Sealey in the Comments section of this Washington Wine Report post is particularly instructive in this regard.)

3. Voter’s Remorse

A lot of voters wanted to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales last year (changing times), but they were unhappy with their choices and confused by the process. There were three different campaigns in 2010 — Costco’s pro 1100 push, a campaign for an alternative law (Initiative 1105, sponsored in part by distributors threatened by 1100’s attack on the three-tier system) and an anti-everything effort (ironically also financed by distributors but also including other groups).

Picky voters cast a No vote — they wanted liquor market reform, but not this way.  This time around, their standards were a bit lower. They no longer expected to have really good choices (see item 2 above), so many people held their noses and voted Yes. This isn’t the way to make state laws, but it is the best choice we have, they said.

4. Divide and Conquer

Finally, the architects of I-1183 crafted their proposal to weaken opposition to it. Last year’s I-1100 was designed to create a nearly perfect market environment for large retailers like Costco. Lots of vested interests were threatened and they reacted with vigor.

There was less opposition to this year’s proposal. In particular, while spirits sales will be privatized and the wine market liberalized, I don’t think there is much direct impact on beer. So beer distributors sensibly stayed out of the fight this time. And I-1183 made a point to increase government revenues from alcohol sales, too, eliminating another potential concern.

So whereas in 2010 it was Costco and other big retailers versus distributors battling for voter attention, this time Costco was opposed by a less effective coalition of anti-alcohol groups, state liquor store operators and employees and some Washington wine producers who fear that they will suffer in the new market environment. The opposition was divided … and conquered.

What’s Next?

It is too soon to know what is going to happen when all of I-1183’s new rules go into effect. Certainly the biggest effects will be on spirit sales. The wine impacts will be smaller (but still significant) and quite diverse. Some wine producers are better prepared than others to compete on price through volume discounts, for example.

Some retailers will no doubt reduce wine shelf space (at least in the short term) in order to make room for spirits. Others may expand the space allocated to wine and spirits at the expense lower-margin items. And big box liquor retailers like Total Wine and BevMo are likely to enter the market, too.

It will be interesting to see how the wine market evolves in Washington as it adjusts to this new environment — more to come on this question. It will also be interesting to see if politicians get the message that some voters put into the election bottle.

In the meantime, I plan to encourage my students to study these election results at a micro level to pick out and try to explain more clearly the key electoral shifts that have ushered in this new alcoholic beverage regime.

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Click here to view an interactive 2011 election map provided by the Washington State Secretary of State’s office. Click here to see the county-by-county results for Initiative 1100 in the 2010 general election. Click on the map above to see the Wine & Vines article where it appears.

Kudos to Sean Sullivan and his Washington Wine Report blog for his thorough analysis of the initiatives in both 2010 and 2011. Sean opposed I-1183 because of its potential negative impact on the Washington wine industry, but correctly predicted that the measure would pass.

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

Anatomy of the Costco Initiative

Second in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws (click here to read the first segment).

A recent article on the Wine Spectator website does an excellent job of detailing the specific elements of Initiative 1100 (which I call The Costco Initiative) and I-1105 (a.k.a. The Distributor Initiative) as they pertain to wine. It is required reading for anyone interested in this issue.

For my part, let me approach the question in a different way: how would the initiatives affect Costco (and other wine retailers), wine distributors, wine consumers and wine makers in Washington state?  This post looks at retailers and distributors. I’ll address consumers and winemakers next time.

Costco’s [Big] Dog in the Fight

Let’s start with Costco, which is appropriate since it is a major backer of I-1100.  How would I-1100 affect Costco? Well, the most important factor is that it would allow Costco and other retailers to sell hard liquor, which is currently a state monopoly in Washington.  Other changes are important, but that’s the big one in terms of economic impact in my view.

What about wine? Not surprisingly, Initiative 1100 would allow Costco to be a much more efficient wine retailer.

First, Costco would be able to purchase wine directly from producers and could take advantage of more efficient central warehousing of alcoholic beverages. Costco would be able to negotiate volume discounts from producers and could benefit from other promotions (wholesalers must maintain uniform prices under the current law and are forbidden from providing retailer incentives). Costco could also negotiate payment schedules — current law requires that retailers pay for wine and beer at the time of purchase.

These changes would make the process of selling wine pretty much the same as other products by removing current restrictions. Costco would also be permitted to sell space on its wine shelves to producers (much as supermarkets routinely sell shelf space for grocery items), although it is unlikely this would actually happen. Costco does not sell space now in states where this is legal. Rather, like Wal-Mart I think, it simply asks for a lower wholesale price.

Taken together these market reforms would lower the cost that Costco pays for wine, savings that would be passed on to consumers. Costco’s normal mark-up on wine is 15% (17% for own-brand Kirkland Signature bottlings), so Costco’s existing absolute price advantage for the wines it carries would likely grow.

Don’t expect Costco to use these advantages to monopolize state wine sales, however. Costco has great wine prices, but it carries a surprisingly small number of wines at any time — about 100-150 different wine SKUs compared to the 1500-2500 that you can find at an upscale supermarket.

So while Costco wine sales will rise, there will be lots of room for other retailers, too. In fact, there is speculation that the market reforms will draw big box wine/beer/liquor retailers Bevmo and Total Wine into the Washington state market.

It is easy to see why retailers are backing I-1100. Their costs will fall and they should be able to sell more wine, which is a high margin item compared to most other supermarket categories.

 

The three-tier distribution system for beer (and wine).

 

The Impact on Distributors

It is also easy to see why distributors oppose I-1100 and why they back I-1105. Initiative 1100 privatizes liquor sales, liberalizes the alcoholic beverages market and allows retailers to cut out middlemen and purchase directly from wine, beer and spirits manufacturers. I-1105 is similar to I-1100 in most respects, but requires that the distribution step in the three-tier process be retained.

Distributors recognize that the ability of large retailers to bypass them and buy directly from producers and to demand discounts and other incentives is a threat to their business and it is understandable that they would oppose this.

Don’t expect distributors to disappear if I-1100 passes, however. Distributors play a vital role in connecting producers and retailers and, although they might lose some “rents” from their previous legal status, I can see where their role will change and might even expand in some specific areas as the overall wine market grows.

Larger distributors, who already have some economic advantages, might get an added edge if they are better able to offer retailers payment terms. Competition in general will increase, so there may be a shake out in this sector if I-1100 passes.

Fundamentally, I-1100 shifts market from distributors to retailers and will redistribute profits within each group, too. What about the people who make wine and those who drink it? Check back in a couple of days for analysis.

This Changes Everything? The Washington Costco Initiative

Everyone knows that the wine business is highly regulated. In France, for example, very restrictive appellation regulations govern how wine can be made and even more restrictive laws limit how it can be advertised and promoted.

French winemakers sometimes must feel they are fighting a battle with one arm tied behind their backs.

America’s Long Hangover

But they have an advantage over many American producers, who could be excused for thinking that both their arms are immobilized. The American appellation system is not as restrictive as Europe’s, but the complicated web of federal, state and local regulations makes selling wine, especially across state borders, costly and cumbersome. (HR 5034, which would impose additional barriers to interstate wine shipments, would make this problem even worse.)

In my forthcoming book I call this mess the American Hangover. The U.S. wine market has a hangover, but it isn’t from too much wine. It is still recovering from Prohibition. Most of today’s regulations can be traced back to the repeal of Prohibition, when the federal government retained some regulatory powers, but turned others over the states (and in some cases, to local jurisdictions, too) thus creating a mess that is difficult to untangle.

The Swedish Solution

Here in Washington state, the end of Prohibition coincided with two important initiatives. First, the state government seized control of liquor sales under a modified version of the Swedish system.

Sweden instituted a state liquor monopoly in the 19th century (which lives on today in the form of Systembologet) based on the logic that people want alcoholic beverages (and will find a way to get them if they are banned outright), so Prohibition isn’t really feasible. But if liquor sale is in private hands it will be actively promoted because of the money it spins off, leading to increased alcoholism and public health and safety concerns.

A state alcohol monopoly can provide wine, beer and spirits as a sort of public utility – people get the product at a high price  and at some inconvenient to simultaneously discourage but facilitate consumption. No profit incentive encourages marketing and promotion of alcohol. The state has a monopoly on off-premises spirit sales in Washington; beer and wine are sold both in state stores and by private retailers.

At the same time the Washington state spirits monopoly was put in place, so were laws meant to protect state wine producers from out-of-state (read “California”) competition.  Incredibly, the number of wineries in the protected market actually fell as the industry collapsed. Without outside competition to discipline local producers, Washington wine became a least-common denominator product. The typical wine was sweet and fortified (Thunderbird-class wine, if you know what I mean) and early attempts to produce quality wines were hampered by the lack of an active fine wine culture.

This Changes Everything

The bad old days of Washington wine.

Much changed in 1969 with the passage of House Bill 100, otherwise known as the California Wine Bill. This law allowed out-of-state wines more or less equal access to the local market. Cheaper California wines flooded in and people naturally bought them.  Unable to compete in the low end wine market because of their higher production costs, Washington wine makers were forced to turn up market.

The California Wine Bill didn’t destroy Washington’s wine industry, as many expected it would. It redefined it. The result (to skip a few steps) is the industry you see today, where even large scale wine producers (think Columbia Crest) make wines to a high standard and the best wines compete successfully with the finest wines in the world.

The California Wine Bill changed everything … or nearly everything. This market liberalization remade the competitive landscape in Washington and set up the growth we have seen in recent years.

Now Washington voters are being asked to consider another set of potential market changes in the form of two initiatives on the November ballot. You might call them The Costco Initiative (I-1100) and The Distributor Initiative (I-1105). Costco is the largest backer of I- 1100 ($1 million according to a Seattle Times article). Liquor distributors Young’s Market and Odom Southern Holdings are reported to have contributed $2.2 million to back I-1105 (and oppose I-1100).

Pros and Cons

Are these proposed laws a step in the right direction in terms of the wine industry in Washington state? Will they “change everything” like the California Wine Bill and in a positive way? Since so many people have asked me this question I thought I would devote some space here to considering the issues.

Both proposals would eliminate the state monopoly on spirit sales. State liquor stores would close and private retailers would be permitted to sell spirits along with beer and wine. Costco has an obvious interest in this as do Safeway (which has contributed $325,000 to support the initiative campaign) and even Wal-Mart (a $40,000 contribution).

The move from public liquor utility to private market is a big change, since it substitutes American capitalism for Swedish socialism. Many people will understandably decide how to vote based on this factor alone. There really are public health and safety concerns associated with potential increased consumption of spirits and it is a fair question to ask if more active promotion of these products and more convenient access to them is in the public interest.

Even wine enthusiasts like me who consume alcoholic beverages every day may oppose these reforms, since we often claim somewhat self-righteously that wine is a temperance beverage – different from hard liquor. I’ll admit it: if this was just about letting Safeway and Costco sell vodka and tequila, I would vote against both the initiatives.

But there is more to the proposals than privatizing liquor sales.  How would they change the wine (as opposed to spirits) market? Who would win and lose? Look for answers to these questions in the next Wine Economist post.

Washington Brands vs Brand Washington

Lettie Teague’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal provokes a post on Washington wine’s identity crisis.

Teague writes in “Stalking the Wines of Washington” that the Washington wine industry has expanded rapidly in the last few years and that there are many great wines and great wine values. Yet Washington wines are hard to buy (she had trouble finding them in New York wine shops) and hard to sell (she quotes several winemakers in this regard, including Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, who is holding back wine and reducing capacity by 40%). What’s the problem?

I Can Get it for you Wholesale

Well, as in most cases, it is not a single thing but a confluence of forces at work. Although she says that fine wines from Washington have a reputation for good value, Teague suggests that many are currently over-priced relative to Napa Valley products. Judging from my email inbox, the reason for this is that a lot of Napa producers are selling off their wines at deeply-discounted prices.

The typical deal I am offered is “limited time only” 50% off the retail price plus discounted shipping. A great deal, except I can sometimes find even lower prices on these wines at local stores. The wholesale prices must be rock-bottom if wineries can do better with these low revenue direct sales. Teague writes that

One Washington winemaker lamented to me, “We can’t compete when Pahlmeyer Cabernet that used to be $90 a bottle is now $45 a bottle.” And so, while the quality has never been higher—Washington has had three excellent vintages (2006, 2007 and 2008)—the wines are getting harder and harder to find in stores outside of Washington state.

[Interestingly, some of the offers have six bottle limits -- a psychological ploy in most cases, I think, to make customers believe that surplus wines are really quite scarce. Wine people tell me that it works every time.]

I think that Washington wines are still a great value, given their high quality, but deep discounting by the competition is never a good thing for producers.

Napa Valley vs Columbia Valley

The lack of a strong regional wine identity is a second issue that Teague identifies (she also cites the small scale of most Washington producers as a disadvantage). Everyone thinks they know what Napa Valley wine is (although it is a large and very varied AVA that produces lots of different types and styles of wine). Napa was a strong brand.

What is Washington wine?  Washington apples have a strong identity and Washington cherries, too. But Washington wine — not so much. A stronger, more prestigious identity could be a real advantage, especially in this economic climate, Teague notes.

… Napa Valley has just done a much better job of marketing itself, according to Marty Clubb, whose L’Ecole 41 Winery in Walla Walla is probably one of the best known and oldest (circa 1983) wineries in the state. “Nobody really knows where our wines are from. People recognize our brand but not as a Washington-state winery.”

Washington has well-known wine brands at nearly every price point from Columbia Crest to Quilceda Creek, but there is no well-established Brand Washington. This is an issue that Paul Gregutt identified in his terrific book,  Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (watch for a second edition on bookstore shelves this fall). He interviewed leaders in the Washington wine industry about their vision for Brand Washington and, while most considered this an important issue, no consensus emerged.

I’ve heard that Allen Shoup (the godfather of Washington wine: former head of Chateau Ste Michelle, now the driving force at Long Shadows) wanted to promote the idea of the Columbia Valley as Washington’s equivalent of Napa Valley — building the Columbia Valley brand to compete with California.

But this plan ran into a collective action problem as individual producers invested in their own private brands and sub-AVA brands instead. I’m sure some buyers today see Columbia Valley as a generic designation, not the prestige brand originally envisioned. And I’m sure a lot of people don’t associate it with any particular place (some people still confuse Washington  State with Washington DC; maybe they think the Columbia Valley is in … Columbia!).

Although the lack of regional identity may be a serious issue in the long run, I think other problems are more pressing right now. After all, most of those deep discount emails I’m getting aren’t coming from Washington, they’re being sent out by famous wineries in famous Napa Valley.  A strong identity surely helps, but can’t completely compensate for competitive market forces.

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One area where Washignton’s wine identity is strong is in Riesling. Riesling Rendezvous — sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Mosel’s Dr. Loosen, begins tomorrow. Riesling makers from around the world will gather near Seattle to discuss the problems and opportunities they face. Look for a Riesling Rendezvous post in the near future.

Where Does Wine Come From?

Where does milk come from? Most people will tell you that milk comes from a cow, but it is easy to imagine that a child might be confused and tell you that milk comes from the supermarket or from the milk company because these are the most obvious choices for someone who has never visited a farm.

The links between products and their natural origins are easy to miss or misinterpret in today’s complicated world, with its long and sometimes global supply chains. Christopher Chase-Dunn used to ask his students “where did your breakfast come from?” and the question when taken seriously sometimes really stumped them.

How Wine is Different from Milk

I like to think that wine is different from milk because we have a lot more information about its origins.  We know that it comes from grapes, of course, but there is often a lot of specific information available (on the label and on the web) about the origins and production processes. Most wine labels tell us the vintage year, for example, and the production region. Data on harvest dates, brix levels, vineyards sourced, fermentation and aging techniques and so forth are frequently available, too.

We typically know or can conveniently discover a whole lot more about where wine comes from (and when and how it was made) than we typically know about milk. It gives wine a certain “somewhereness” that I have written about before. So it’s easy to get sorta cocky about wine and to think that wine enthusiasts actually drink in all this information and are very well informed about wine terroir. But it would be a mistake to think that everyone is a geeky as I am in this regard.

Taste the Vineyard

If you ask winemakers where wine comes from many will tell you that it is made in the vineyard (vineyards are to wine as cows are to milk, I guess). But consumers don’t always think of it that way, as I learned on Sunday when Sue and I poured wines by several makers using grapes from the Riverbend Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA during the Taste Washington event in Seattle.

Most of the action at Taste Washington was out on the main floor, where about 200 wineries offered tastes of their wines.  Our table was in a area designated for vineyards, not wineries. You could visit the Boushey Vineyard table, for example, and taste its terroir as expressed by several different wineries that source their fruit from this famous grower. It was a different way of thinking about wine: vineyards, not varietals or winemakers or AVAs.

It’s an idea of wine much closer to the concept of terroir that wine geeks talk about with such urgency.

Riverbend is the estate vineyard of the highly regarded Fielding Hills Winery, so the people who stopped by to chat and taste with us were able to sample the Fielding Hills 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah as well as and a half dozen other wines made from Riverbend grapes by others (including wines by Nefarious Cellars, Soos Creek, Tildio Winery, Hard Row to Hoe, and Chateau Faire Le Pont).

The wines, all excellent, were sometimes very different (the influence of the winemakers) but there were some interesting common threads (the terroir) that could be teased out with a little time and concentration (difficult, I know, in the context of a big tasting event). It was an unusual and interesting opportunity to taste wines in this way and decide for yourself where wine comes from — the vineyard, the cellar or maybe both.

Where Does Wine Come From?

We had a great time and met a lot of great people, but we soon came to realize that the idea of tasting wines from the same place but made by different people was quite foreign to most of the attendees. They knew about the idea of terroir, but that’s not the way they identified wine in practice.

Where does wine come from? From wineries — those tables out on the main floor of Taste Washington — and the winemakers who work in them. The idea of the vineyard’s critical role was something we had to explain. To their credit, a lot of people embraced it and took their time tasting through the wines. I hope they found the time they spent worthwhile (they paid a high opportunity cost for their education in terroir given limited time  in a room full of great wines).

I’m always on the lookout for teachable moments and so I liked the challenge of staffing the Riverbend Vineyard table. It turns out that wine is more like milk than I thought — it’s easy to think that it comes from the store or the winery and to forget its natural origins. But you can find terroir if you know where to look and you take the time and trouble to seek it out.

Events like Taste Washington create teachable moments and proponents of terroir-based wines have lots of educating work to do to make the difference between milk and wine even clearer in consumer minds.

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Update 3/31/2010: By coincidence Jancis Robinson has posted an article on her Purple Pages website about the incredible terroir of Washington’s best vineyards. She attended a London tasting of Washington wines and was drawn to the the Cabs made from Champoux Vineyard fruit. Here’s a quick taste of the article.

The highlight of the Pacific North West tasting in London earlier this year was a clutch of very fine Cabernet Sauvignons from Champoux vineyard in Washington state. They reinforced my impression from the rest of the tasting that Cabernet can be a real star among the state’s reds, particularly when the vines are more mature, the site just right and the vineyard manager a perfectionist.

You can find the entire article (including tasting notes) here. It reinforces what I wrote above about the benefits of thinking of wine as a vineyard product.

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Thanks to Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills for inviting us to work the Riverbend Vineyard table. Thanks as well to Robin Wade for all her help. Thanks to all the nice people we met. Great wine, great people, great event.

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