Washington Wine: More Than the Sum of Its Parts?

P1050699This post starts with a roundabout tour of Taste Washington, considers the changing of the guard at The Wine Advocate, and ends with an idea for a new “Brand Washington” slogan. Hop on board — it promises to be a wild ride.

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My plan for Taste Washington, as reported in last week’s post, was to experience the event through two imaginary guides, Benjamin Lewin (author of the forthcoming book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignonand  The Wine Advocate’s new reviewer for Washington wine, David Schildknecht. I think I’ve learned something through this effort, but it wasn’t as easy as I expected.

Hypothesis Testing 

One of the points that Lewin makes is that because many of the Washington Cabernet vineyards are planted with the same or similar clones, there is less diversity in single-vineyard wines than you might imagine — blending across vineyards and even across regions is needed to compensate, he suggests.

So I set out to test this hypothesis empirically on the event floor, but found myself unable to establish a control on which to base the comparison. Poor experimental design on my part — I should have asked Dr. Lewin, a renowned scientist, for advice! Perhaps I will have better luck if I try this again next year.

I was more successful verifying Schildknecht’s observations about the freshness and originality of Washington wines at their best (by tasting some of the same wines he reviewed), but on the day that my initial post was published I received an email from The Wine Advocate announcing that Schildknecht was being assigned new reviewing duties that do not include Washington (Rhone Ranger specialist Jeb Dunnuck is taking over the job), which made this part of the experiment less interesting to me.

[Several folks hereabouts are understandably frustrated and feel a bit disrespected by The Wine Advocate's coverage of Washington this year -- reviews posted much later than promised and now another change in lead critic after only one year. The Wine Advocate is having a rocky transition to the post-Parker era, with new owners and new reviewers in a challenging and shifting publishing environment. No disrespect intended, it's just business -- that's how I see the situation -- but it is easy to see why some Washington winemakers and enthusiasts (including me) would be disappointed.]

The Art of the Blend

A different kind of blend

A different kind of blend

Touring Taste Washington with my imaginary guides was fun and provoked some interesting conversations but proved more complicated than I imagined it would be. I learned more at the seminars we attended before the big event (see details at the end of this post). Using a “divide and conquer” strategy, Contributing Editor Sue Veseth went one way and I went another. Here is Sue’s report:

Should Washington’s signature wines be blends? This was the first of several questions that came to mind at the Taste Washington seminar called “All Mixed Up — The Art of Blending.” The panel included three blending masters (Brian Carter of Brian Carter Cellars, Dave Merfeld of Northstar Winery, and Mike MacMorran of Mark Ryan Winery), plus Doug Charles of Compass Wines, and Tom Thompson from the Tulalip Resort. Washington Wine Report’s Sean Sullivan chaired the discussion.

In addition to the question of Washington’s signature wine, other questions came to mind.

What constitutes a blend? Blending can involve different varietals, of course, but also different percentages of the varietals, different vineyards, different picking times, different yeasts, different oak or no oak — you name it. In many cases, a wine labeled as a varietal may well be blended with other grapes, in accordance with local labeling requirements. Mark Ryan Winery’s Dead Horse is labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon but also includes Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Is the varietal name the best way to market blends that meet requirements to be labeled with the varietal name? Are wines labeled “red blend” or “red wine” the best way to market blends? Or are named blends — such as Brian Carter’s Abracadabera — more appealing and memorable to consumers?

Are varietals introductory, “gateway” wines? One winemaker suggested that as wine drinkers become more educated, they can (should?) move from varietals to blends. Blends open more wine options for adventurous wine drinkers.

Traditional or non-traditional blends? Many Washington winemakers successfully make and sell traditional blends. Four of the wines at the seminar were traditional Bordeaux bends, one was a Southern Rhone blend. But the most interesting wine (to me) was a non-traditional blend, the 2011 Brian Carter Oriana, a blend of 51% Viognier, 35% Rousanne, and 14% Riesling. Riesling! So maybe Washington’s signature wine blends can respect the standard European blends and also include more non-traditional choices. Blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah already have a foothold.

More questions than answers.

My Solution to the Adding Up Problem

My seminar focused on the wines of the Yakima Valley AVA, Washington’s first appellation, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. Although the point of the program was to showcase the wines, to show their excellence and to argue that Yakima deserves a higher profile, another aspect that was revealed was its complicated diversity.

I wonder — are Yakima wines more diverse within the region than they are distinctive from other areas? Add that to Sue’s list of questions! Yes, I think they might. I think it is possible that this intra-AVA diversity makes the wines more interesting and sometimes downright exciting, even though the result might be that the Yakima AVA “brand”  isn’t as neatly defined (and commercially valuable) as some might like.

What is our take-away message from these seminars and the grand tasting? Well, it seems to me that we learned that Washington wine is more than the sum of its parts. The parts are very good — the individual AVAs, the particular vineyards and grape varieties, etc. — and it is understandable to want to showcase each of them. But maybe just maybe Washington’s true identity comes through best when creative people blend them together.

Washington Wine: more than the sum of its parts? I suppose there are worse ways to describe this region!

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Here are details of the seminars that Sue and I attended. Thanks to Taste Washington and the Washington Wine Commission for media passes to these events.

All Mixed Up – The Art of Blending

Blends are one of the hottest categories on the market. What’s all the buzz about? Why are consumers embracing this category so enthusiastically? Why and how do winemakers blend their wines? What grapes play well together, and which one aren’t allowed in the sand box together? At this seminar you will learn from some of Washington’s masters as they pull back the curtain on the blending room and reveal the secrets behind the art of blending.

Moderator:
Sean Sullivan, Washington Wine Report (wawinereport.com) 

Panelists:
Brian Carter, Brian Carter Cellars (briancartercellars.com)
Tom Thompson, Tulalip Resort (tulalipresprt.com)
Dave Merfeld, Northstar Winery (northstarwinery.com) 
Mike MacMorran, Mark Ryan Winery (markryanwinery.com) 
Doug Charles, Compass Wines (compasswines.com)

Wines:
Brian Carter Cellars Oriana 2011
Cadence Bel Canto 2009
Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot 2009
Mark Ryan Winery Dead Horse 2010
Seven Hills Ciel du Cheval 2010
Rotie Cellars Southern Rhone Blend 2010

Yakima Valley 30th Anniversary

The Yakima Valley is Washington’s first American Viticultural Area, approved 30 years ago in 1983. It’s also steeped in the early history of the Washington wine industry. Some of the state’s first European wine grapes were planted in Sunnyside by William B. Bridgman in 1917. The legendary Dr. Walter Clore came to the Yakima Valley soon after Prohibition was repealed and began planting grapes in the ’50s and ’60s to show Washington’s viability as a world-class wine region. Today, some of Washington’s greatest vineyards — Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Boushey, Red Willow and DuBrul among them — are in the Yakima Valley. In this seminar, we will explore the Yakima Valley’s fascinating history and diverse viticulture

Moderator:
Andy Perdue, Great Northwest Wine (greatnorthwestwine.com)

Panelists:
Bob Betz MW, Betz Family Winery (betzfamilywinery.com) 
W. Blake Gray, The Gray Report (blog.wblakegray.com)
Todd Newhouse, Upland Vineyards (uplandwinery.com) 
Thomas Price MS, The Metropolitan Grill (themetropolitangrill.com)

Wines:
Domaine Ste Michelle Brut Rose
Smasne Cellars Ancient Rocks 2010
Betz Family Winery La Serenne 2010
Owen Roe Red Willow Vineyard 2010
DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill 2009
Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval 2010

Imaginary Guides to Washington Wine

Taste Washington bills itself as the nation’s largest single region wine and  food gathering. This year it was bigger and better than ever. Bigger — two days instead of one — with 225 wineries (out of the roughly 700 in the state) pouring about a thousand different wines. A great opportunity to survey Washington wine and taste food from more than 60 local restaurants.

The program was also better in a way that will make sense to Wine Economist readers. It seems to me that the Washington Wine Commission made even more of a point to help and encourage participating wineries to tell their stories and to promote their products. The pre-event messages were more focused and the two-day format meant that the wineries could give attendees more personal attention, which is key to relationship-building. This has always been the goal, of course, but I sensed an even more clearly directed effort this year, which I applaud, and I hope it pays off.

Turning the Tables

My first exposure to Taste Washington put me on the other side of the tasting table, pouring the wines of Fielding Hills Winery for my good friends Mike and Karen Wade. Although I wasn’t able to taste many other wines, I think I had the best view of the event because the people came to me — and it is meeting and talking with the people that is probably the best part (no offense to the food and wine).

So how do you actually taste Washington? You can roam around randomly, sniffing and swirling, but I think it is best to have a strategy. Last time around I tried to taste every Washington Malbec I could find to compare with the Argentinean wines I had tasted in Mendoza. Fascinating!

My Imaginary Guides

This year I decided to try to see Washington wine by imagining that I was new to the region but far from new to wine and looking at the state’s industry through these particular eyes. My imaginary guides? David Schildknecht and Benjamin Lewin. They weren’t there to guide my in person, but I used their recent writings to steer my path. Here’s what I think I learned.

David Schildknecht is The Wine Advocate’s new reviewer for Washington State, replacing Dr. Jay Miller who has moved on to other pursuits.  Schildknecht has written for Robert Parker’s celebrated wine journal since 1989 and I have especially appreciated his reviews of German and Austrian wines. He made two visits to Washington in 2012, literally starting from the ground up to master his new turf by touring the vineyards in the company of geologists!

Benjamin Lewin visited Washington in September 2012 to gather information for his forthcoming book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, the sequel to In Search of Pinot Noir. Lewin’s Washington stop was part of his project to taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Claret (or Cab blend wines) from all the most important wine regions of the world. Lewin is nothing if not ambitious and the resulting book is quite spectacular.

I admire Lewin’s sharp analytical approach and his fluid writing style and I frankly envy his skill as a wine taster. Look for a review of Claret & Cabs closer to the May 1, 2013 official publication date.

I decided to make Schildknecht and Lewin my guides since they were both essentially experiencing  Washington for the first time and because their backgrounds and approaches are so different. Surely I would get an interesting view by putting Lewin’s lens in front of one eye and Schildknecht’s in front of the other.

Consulting the Guide Books

I know what Lewin thinks because I’ve got a review copy of the book. Schildknecht’s views are not yet fully stated [and perhaps never will be -- see note below -- because a new reviewer was assigned to Washington on the day this post was published]. Wine Advocate has only published a selection of his reviews of individual Washington wines and wineries — an additional tranche of reviews has been promised for some time, but hasn’t yet appeared. Included in the so-far unpublished list are wineries that account for a majority of Washington wines — Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, Columbia Crest and many others.

I don’t think we will really know Schildknecht’s views until all the reviews have been released and even then it might take a few years to see how the pieces fit together. Fortunately, he has published an essay that tries to sum up his reaction to Washington and its wines and I have found that very useful (it is behind the sturdy Wine Advocate pay wall, however, so you’ll need to purchase a subscription to read it).

Lewin and Schildknecht both seem to be confused or perhaps appalled by Washington’s untidy ad hoc system of AVAs, so they mainly ignore them and focus on vineyards and wineries rather than regional designations.

The Signature Varietal Issue Once Again

David Schildknecht

 They both address the issue, which I raised last week, of a signature varietal. And while the Washington industry is officially neutral in this fight (we’ve tried signature varietals before and the results haven’t been pretty), Lewin and Schildknecht don’t hesitate to state their choices.

Washington is all about Cabernet and Merlot says Lewin (who coincidentally is writing a book about Cabernet and Merlot), although he seems to think that adding Syrah to the blend can be a good thing. It’s all about Cabernet and Syrah, says Schildknecht, although you can tell that he really wishes that he could make a stronger case for Riesling.

The problem with Washington Riesling, according to Schildknecht, is that Washington can make extremely good wines at affordable prices. You can get maybe 80-90% of the quality of top German wines for a low price (my numbers not his), so who is going to pay the substantial extra cost to get that last 10%? No one, he moans. So Washington Riesling is doomed to arrested development.

The Diversity Issue

Schildknecht also seems concerned with the division of labor in Washington wine, where wine growing is one specialization and wine making and marketing another. Most of the world’s great wine is estate wine, he says, where the two functions take place under unified control. The Washington non-estate practice of blending from different sites and different appellations to add complexity and diversity feels like a compromise to him, even when the results are very good.

Lewin is more concerned about clones. He notes that a great many of the Cabernet vines are the same or similar clones, especially the earlier plantings, so that clonal diversity is very limited in making the wine, meaning that cross-region blending is needed to add complexity to the wines.

Washington Originals

Both have nice things to say about Washington wines. Schildknecht highlights the freshness and authenticity of the wines at their best. He wonders why Washington wine makers waste their time talking in terms of Old World models when they are creating an original product. He writes that

 I have no compunction about drawing analogies to specific Old World wine types when I think these apply – and for the benefit of those (very much including yours truly) for whom these are the most familiar points of reference. But virtually all of the most exciting wines I tasted for the present report display personalities and styles whose like I haven’t encountered outside Washington, and that is precisely what their producers and promoters should wish for.

Lewin locates some of this distinctiveness in his comparison of Cabernet and Merlot. Usually, he notes, you add Cabernet to Merlot to give it depth and structure. In Washington, on the other hand, it is Merlot that is the gutsier grape and Cabernet that perhaps needs a little punching up. Maybe this is due to Washington’s distinctive growing climate (large diurnal variation, longer sun-filled days) and perhaps this accounts for Washington Merlot’s signal success in the pre-Sideways Merlot boom days.

Why Not Syrah?

Both authors seem to wonder why Syrah isn’t more often included in Cabernet blends? Is the idea that Washington winemakers must adhere to “Bordeaux blend” orthodoxy preventing them from making the best and most interesting possible wines?

Lewin and Schildknecht are very interesting on their own and you can perhaps see that piecing them together raises some questions and starts to answer questions, too. What did I learn with the two of them as my imaginary guides to Taste Washington? Come back next week to find out.

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My comments here only scratch the surface of what Lewin and Schildknecht have to say about Washington wine, but this hopefully gives you some insight into their fresh perspective on the region’s wines. (I hope I haven’t misrepresented them in my brief summaries.)

Thanks to the Wine Appreciation Guild for letting me have a sneak peak at Benjamin Lewin’s new book. I’ll post a full review in a few weeks.

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Update 4/2/2013 An email from Wine Advocate arrived this morning announcing a new reviewer for Washington wines, Jeb Dunnuck.  It will be interesting to find out his take on Washington wine.s

Between Two Worlds: The Paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA

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Columbia Gorge: Washington on the left, Oregon on the right.

Washington State produces much more wine than Oregon, but Oregon wines are sometimes easier to find outside the Pacific Northwest. That was a paradox that I discovered as I traveled around the country last year on the Wine Wars book tour and giving alumni talks for the University of Puget Sound.

The Signature Wine Advantage

One explanation for this surprising situation is that Oregon has a “signature wine” while Washington does not. When people think of Oregon they think Pinot Noir and so retailers know what to stock — Pinot Noir at various price points. But what comes to mind when you think of Washington? Nothing, the argument goes, because Washington is many things — Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, various blends, etc. etc. — and not any one particular thing. Lacking a signature wine variety, retailers don’t know what to stock on their shelves, so they stock less, concerned that it might not sell.

This argument is over-simplified for sure and probably over-sold, too, but the signature variety issue does seems to give Oregon a bit of an advantage over Washington and has caused much  hand-wringing on the north side of the Columbia River over the years.

Lucky Oregon — they’re Pinot Noir. Everyone knows who they are. Poor Washington — we’re [almost] everything, but how do we communicate that? I want to look at both sides of this dilemma over the next few weeks and see if I can shed any light on the question of how wine regions define themselves and the challenges and opportunities of the different strategies.

The Other Oregons

So let’s talk about Oregon. It is rightly known for its fine Pinot Noir wines and it highlights this fact each year at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville.  The IPNC gathers Pinot-makers and Pinot-lovers from all around the world, drawing attention to the Oregon industry. It’s an intense experience — so intense that I use it as the focal point for the chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in my forthcoming book Extreme Wine.

But Oregon is not really a one note samba — it is more than Pinot Noir and more than the Willamette Valley, too. And that’s a bit of a problem, because while signature varieties like Oregon Pinot open doors to a wider market, they can also erect barriers to public recognition of other wines and regions. The wine world is very complicated and I wonder if consumers and retailers who think they finally understand Oregon (or Washington or Chile, etc. etc.) are interested in having that understanding challenged, even if the result would benefit them?

I’m exploring how this question plays out in the “other Oregons” in two stages. We’ve just returned from a weekend of research in the Columbia Gorge AVA, to see one example of Oregon beyond Pinot Noir, and we plan to visit Southern Oregon later in the year for a different take on the situation.

Absolutely Gorgeous

The Columbia Gorge AVA, established in 2004, is a beautiful region with many excellent wines, but it is sort of trapped between two worlds. It starts near the town of Hood River, about an hour east of Portland on Interstate 84, and extends past The Dalles. The AVA runs along both sides of the Columbia River, embracing vineyards and wineries on both the Washington and Oregon shores. Is it a Washington AVA or an Oregon AVA? Both, I think, but that’s part of the “two worlds” confusion.

Vineyard

A typically complicated Columbia Gorge terroir.

The western end of the AVA is very much classic Oregon on both sides of the river. Like the Willamette Valley, the climate is rainy (36 inches a year on average, but as much as 50 inches at the famous Celilo Vineyard) and cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer do well here.  The Chardonnays and Pinots we tasted at Phelps Creek Vineyards were distinctly and intentionally Burgundian in style, for example, and Rich Cushman’s Rieslings at Viento Wines are works of the Riesling-maker’s art. Nice wines!

Oregon to the West, Washington to the East

So the Gorge is Oregon on the west end (and on both sides of the river), but as you drive east things begin to change. By the time you reach The Dalles you’ve experienced a rain shadow effect and the average rainfall is just 10 inches! Cabernet and Merlot (Washington wine grape varieties) do really well here as do Syrah and even Zinfandel. (Watch for a future post about the 120 year-old Zinfandel vines we found!).

Washington or Oregon? It’s not so much which side of the river as which end of the AVA. But it gets even more confusing (for anyone seeking a simple identity for the wine region), because elevation and aspect are key factors, too. Winegrower Lonnie Wright (the curator of those old Zin vines), drove us to a hilltop where rows of Zinfandel vines cascaded down the south-facing slope while Pinot Noir vines streamed down the north-facing side, the Zin benefiting from the advantageous aspect while the Pinot prospered because of the elevation.

It’s Complicated

The Gorge is divided in other ways, too. While you and I might think of it in terms of wine, other crops are probably bigger business for the local landowners. You can’t imagine the acres of apples, pears and cherries we drove through on our way to the hillside vineyards. And tourism just might be a  bigger industry in the long run. Fortunately these three sides of the Gorge economy mainly reinforce each other in a happy way except of course when they don’t (water rights in drier areas, for example).

Washington or Oregon? Well, as I said, both, but not a region that clearly fits into the stereotype of either state’s wine industry. Some of the wine people I met were happy to have the Oregon association since that is so clearly defined (and works quite well for the quantities of Pinot Noir grapes grown here, which often end up in Oregon appellation wines from Willamette Valley makers). But obviously it cannot encompass the great variety of terroirs, climates and grape varieties found in the Gorge.

Wine is just too darn complicated to be reduced to a single thing. Even in Oregon. Or Washington. Or wherever the Columbia Gorge is!

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The paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA is just one aspect of the increasing interwoven nature of the the Washington and Oregon wine industries (and the fact that the Columbia River actually unites these regions more than it divides them). The Walla Walla AVA also crosses the state line, of course, and many “Oregon” wineries have grapes trucked down along the river from Washington AVAs such as Horse Heaven Hills to wineries in the Gorge and the Willamette valley, where they make “Washington wines” in “Oregon” wineries — a good thing for everyone involved in my book even if it adds to the wine region identity crisis just a bit.

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Thanks to Lonnie Wright (The Pines 1852) and Rich Cushman (Viento Wines) for showing us their sides of the Gorge — look for more about their projects in future posts. Thanks to Bob and Becky Morus for making our visit to Phelps Creek possible.  Thanks to research assistants Bonnie Main and Richard Pichler for their expertise and enthusiasm.  Thanks to contributing editor Sue Veseth for research assistance and the photos shown here.

It Takes a Village (and More): Washington State Wine Awards

wswa,jpgIt takes a village to raise a child, they say, but it takes a good deal more than just a village to make a regional wine industry a success. That was one of the take-away messages of the Washington State Wine Awards, although it might not have been the most important one. You be the judge!

And the Winner Is …

The  Washington State Wine Awards (organized by the Washington State Wine Commission) isn’t a wine competition, as you might expect from the name. There’s no Oscar-like presentation for “Best Bordeaux-style Blend”  or “Outstanding Un-oaked Chardonnay under $12.”

No wines receive awards at all! Instead, it is an opportunity for the wine industry in this state to recognize the villages of people who help get the wines into consumer hands.

This event used to be focused on restaurants and their wine programs, but this year they wisely decided to open it up and recognize people throughout the retail, wholesale, tourism and hospitality industries, giving them credit for what they do to support the cause of Washington wines.

What a great idea! I’ve pasted a few of the awards at the end of this post, click here to download a full list of the winners.

Surprise!

About 60 wineries set up tasting tables for the event — what’s a wine award without wine? — and it was fun to sample wines while talking to such a broad representation of the local “trade.”

I was lucky to run into food writer and cookbook author Cynthia Nims and I asked her what her take-away was from the event. She thought for a moment and then her eyes lit up — surprise!

Cynthia knows knows Washington wines very well, but she said that could always find something new, something surprising at events like this — a sign of the industry’s dynamism. I guess that’s what makes wine (and food, too) so eternally fascinating. We shared our new discoveries and surprises and returned to the tasting.

Hitting the Price Point

The third interesting reaction came from my guests at the event, colleagues Pierre Ly and Cynthia Howson, who frequently assist me with Wine Economist research projects. They grabbed the tasting menu and two glasses and headed out to do an experiment of their own design.

P1050258Taking turns, they would taste the wines “blind” — blind in a limited economic sense of not knowing how much they might cost in this case, since it was obviously impossible not to know something about the wines in this atmosphere.

They’d taste, think it over, and then give a “is it worth it?” score — how much would they be willing to pay for this wine?

It’s an interesting idea and challenging, I think, given that the wineries were pouring wines that ranged from $9 (Silver Lake Winery) to $120 (Côte Bonneville) per bottle!

Village, Value and Surprise

Their conclusion? Well obviously there were a few wines that cost far more than they would or could pay. But on the whole they found the wines to be excellent values, with prices falling well within their clearly subjective  “I’d buy that” range.

And, interestingly, they reported several wines that they’d now be willing to buy that are well outside their usual comfort zone — they never would have considered them without tasting them first.

The village, the value and the ability to surprise and delight. All of this reflects well on Washington wine today and bodes well for its future, too!

Partial list of Washington State Wine Awards

Restaurant of the YeaVisconti’s Italian Restaurant 
Sommelier of the Year Thomas Price, Metropolitan Grill
Retailer of the Year Metropolitan Market
Walter Clore Honorarium Doug Charles, Compass Wines
Independent Restaurant of the Year Copperleaf Restaurant at the Cedarbrook Lodge
Best Event Featuring Washington Wine Washington Wine Challenge, Urbane
Best Restaurant Group MacKay Restaurant Group
Independent Retailer of the Year Wine World & Spirits
Retailer Chain of the Year Yoke’s Fresh Market
Retailer Steward of the Year Doug King, Metropolitan Market
Tourism Champion of the Year Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau
Tourism Concierge of the Year Anne Peavey, Seattle’s Convention and Visitor Bureau
Hotel of the Year Hotel Vintage Park
Distributor of the Year Young’s Market Company
Salesperson of the Year Kris Patten, Young’s Market Company

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Images: This year’s beautiful grand award (top), Cynthia Nims (center) and Pierre and Cynthia (photo from a different tasting).

Red Mountain: Think Global, Drink Local

Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest AVA and perhaps its most distinctive. This compact patch of dirt (see larger map below) has produced the grapes for some of the state’s most celebrated red wines. There’s a real sense of place in the wines according to critics, so the “drink local” part of this post’s title makes sense. But think global?

Well, yes. The wine world is very interconnected; international influences are surprisingly common and take many forms. A visit to Red Mountain (Sue and I were joined by research assistants Bonnie and Richard) revealed two of globalization’s many local faces.

The Italian Job: Col Solare

You might not expect to find one of the legendary names of Italian wine here on Red Mountain, but as you motor up Antinori Drive towards the beautiful winery at the top of the road the association becomes clearer. Col Solare (Italian for Shining Hill) is a joint venture of Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori and Washington State’s Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE). There has to be a story. Here it is.

It must have been about 20 years ago that Piero Antinori came to America, looking for a wine-producing partner. He wasn’t interested in making an American super-Tuscan. He wanted to do what he thought America did best: Cabernet. So, as the Ghost Busters used to say, “who ya gonna call?” if you want to make great Cabernet? The answer was obviously André Tchelistcheff, the legendary wine maker at Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyards and consultant to many important wineries (including Chateau Ste Michelle).

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Where in America can I make distinctive Cabernet? Tchelistcheff knew what advice to give because in fact he had already given it to his nephew Alex Golitzin who founded Quilceda Creek winery, which makes some of Washington’s highest-rated Cabernets. Tchelistcheff’s advice to Antinori was much the same and resulted in the partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates and the Col Solare winery we see today.

The first wines, starting with the 1995 vintage, were made with grapes sourced from several Columbia Valley vineyard sites and produced at a nearby SMWE facility, but eventually the focus on Red Mountain grew stronger and the showcase winery was finished just in time for the 2006 crush. The estate vineyards radiate like the rays of the sun on the hillside below the winery.

The partnership has grown since that first step. SMWE is now the sole importer of Antinori wines into the U.S. market and in 2oo7 the two partnered again to purchase the Judgment of Paris champion Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Quite a successful partnership — you’ve got to believe that Tchelistcheff earned his consulting fee.

Col Solare is interesting to me because of the global-local connection. The wine is Cabernet-based, as Antinori wanted, but with a distinct Red Mountain twist, which means that it includes a little bit of Syrah in addition to the usual Bordeaux suspects since Syrah does so well here.

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Col Solare is an impressive achievement. Everyone we talked with on Red Mountain seemed glad to have them there. SMWE and Antinori are good neighbors, good customers for the local growers and good advocates of Red Mountain and its wines.

Red Mountain isn’t a first class wine tourist destination yet — the infrastructure needs further development and another couple of winery tasting rooms wouldn’t hurt either — but Col Solare is already a destination winery and worth the trip.

The Swedish Solution: Hedges Family Estates

Another destination Red Mountain winery, Hedges Family Estates, shows a different aspect of the local-global connection. Tom Hedges is a local boy, who grew up in the Tri-Cities area before the region became known for wine. He studied international business at the University of Puget Sound and then at the Thunderbird grad school in Arizona. I guess you could say that he got into the wine business through the side door — through the business side. Here’s how the Hedges website explains what happened next. 

In 1986 … Tom and Anne-Marie created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based out of Kirkland, Washington State; they began selling wine to foreign importers. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired wine called Hedges Cellars. This 1987 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was sold to the Swedish Wine and Spirit Monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, the company’s first major client.

So you could say that Hedges Cellars was created to satisfy a global demand. Soon Hedges was breaking ground on his Red Mountain estate. Today Hedges is the largest family winery in Washington and was instrumental in establishing the Red Mountain AVA.

It really is a family operations. Tom and his French-born wife Anne-Marie are proprietors, brother Pete Hedges makes the wines, Tom and Anne-Marie’s daughter Sarah is assistant winemaker and son Christophe is director of sales and marketing. The wine portfolio ranges from the Hedges Red Mountain estate wine (a Bordeaux blend, but with a bit a Syrah) to the popular CMS blends and the House of Independent Producers wines.

Taken together I think Col Solare and Hedges Family Estates show the local-global nexus at its best, bringing international attention and expertise  to local wines and taking those wines to global markets. We are often told that globalization suffocates local enterprise, but these wineries show that it can, in the right circumstances, breathe life into them.

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I can’t leave Red Mountain without mentioning two other stops we made that day. It was about time for lunch when we finished our visit to Col Solare and that can be a problem since I don’t think there are any restaurants on Red Mountain.  But we had planned ahead for a picnic and so we headed to Fidélitas, where we bought a bottle of Charlie Hoppes’ delicious Semillon and dined out on the patio overlooking the vineyards. Turns out we didn’t need to bring food — Charlie had arranged for a local barbeque food truck to be available for weekend visitors like us — nice touch!

Our next stop was the world’s best vineyard tour. Michael and Lauri Corliss (of Corliss Estates) had arranged for us to meet Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky, who were working in one of  the Corliss Red Mountain vineyards just up the road from Fidélitas  supervising  the mid-October harvest. We spent the best part of two hours with Mike and James, visiting every nook and cranny of the complicated site, learning about the careful matching of grape variety and terroir and tasting the perfectly ripe fruit. A real taste of Red Mountain.

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Thanks to Bonnie and Richard for their able assistance. Thanks to Wysteria Rush and Marcus Notaro at Col Solare and Tom Hedges and Deborah Culverhouse at Hedges Family Estates. Thanks to Michael and Lauri Corliss and Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky for their hospitality.

Photos: (1) Col Solare winemaker Marcus Notaro (in his  classic Inter “Roberto Baggio” jersey), (2) the view down Red Mountain from Hedges, and (3) Mike, Tom and Richard in discussion at Hedges. You can see how tiny Red Mountain is on the map below.

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.

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