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.

Wine Spectator 100: North and South

The lists of the Top 100 wines have started to appear — just in time for holiday buying. Wine Spectator released their Top 100 last week and now Wine Enthusiast has followed suit. Other lists are showing up, too, such as Paul Gregutt’s list of the 100 best Washington wines.  Fun and informative, these lists provide wine lovers with endless opportunities to discuss, debate and of course pull corks. Gotta love ‘em.

But you’ve gotta hate ‘em, too. Top 100 lists are a mixed blessing on the supply side of the market. Although they do promote wine and wine drinking generally, they necessarily privilege some wines over others and this is always problematic given the thousands and thousands of good wines that are produced each year. Why this wine and not that one? It’s an inevitable question that matters because wines on the list get more attention than the wines that don’t for some reason make the cut.

Dancing in the Streets

Top 100 lists slice up the market in many ways and this year my email inbox has revealed a North-South divide. Here in Washington State we are very happy with the 2009 Wine Spectator league table. Nine Washington wines made the list — more than any previous year — including the #1 spot, which went to the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (95 points, $27 dollars). Two Oregon wines were also listed, so altogether this was a banner year for the Pacific Northwest.

While they are dancing in the streets in Woodinville and Walla Walla, the mood is more sober down south in Mendoza.  Two Argentinian wines appear on the WS100, which is welcome recognition of course, but that’s down from four last year. This is really Argentina’s year to shine in the U.S. wine market, with overall sales surging by more than 40% in dollar value according to Nielsen ScanTrack data. But only half as many WS100 wines! You can’t blame members of the Argentinian industry for kinda hoping to see their success more enthusiastically celebrated in the Top 100 lists. Hmmm. Maybe next year.

A Nobel Prize for Wine?

It seems to me that these top 100 wine lists are a little bit like the Nobel Peace Prize. Highly publicized awards like the Nobel and the Top 100  end up being both reflections of excellence and opportunities for the judges to send a message (political, economic or otherwise). There are many worthy nominees for each award so the final choice is always arbitrary — and the opportunity to send a message is irresistible. Or at least I wouldn’t be able to resist it.

There are obviously many factors that go into a Top 100 wine list and a wine’s objective quality  is just one of them. This is easy to see if you take numerical ratings seriously. The WS100 #1 wine this year earned a 95 score, for example, but the #2 wine received a higher score (96) and the #8 wine’s score was even higher (99). A 100-point wine was placed in the 21st spot last year. This is a numbers game but not just a numbers game.

Don’t Cry for Argentina

Wine Spectator uses four criteria in making their list: quality (the score), value (the price), availability (the volume) and excitement (the X-factor). The Columbia Crest wines (both the Reserve that won this year and their other wines) generally do very well on the first three factors year in and year out. The X-factor this year, I believe, was the recession and the desire to inspire some excitement among American buyers by giving them a #1 wine they could find and afford. That $27 Columbia Crest wine says that American wine drinkers can enjoy truly excellent wines at relatively affordable prices. Time to start pulling those corks! A good message to send in this economic climate.

What about Argentina? Well, I understand their situation. No problem with quality, volume or availability. But I think the market excitement is already there and doesn’t need any help from the wine lists at this point (as much as the Argentinian makers would love to have it). The U.S. industry (like President Obama?) could use some encouragement right now, which may be a good enough reason to draw attention to its outstanding, good value wines like the Columbia Crest Reserve.

Note: Congratulations to Juan Manuel Muñoz Oca, the 34-year old Argentinian winemaker who made the #1 Columbia Crest Washington State wine. What a great North-South connection!

Wine as a Liberal Art

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David Rosenthal at Chateau Ste Michelle

I  teach a class called “The Idea of Wine” at the University of Puget Sound. It isn’t your typical wine class. It’s an examination of wine in the context of geography, history, science, business, politics, culture and globalization and how these various forces create different and sometimes conflicting “ideas of wine.”

I guess it is really about my idea of wine – that wine is a liberal art and a fascinating social mirror. The fact that it tastes so good is a wonderful bonus.

Wine isn’t usually included in the liberal arts curriculum, reflecting  America’s prejudice against anything that contains alcohol. But there is historical precedent. Symposium, in the original Greek useage, was a discussion over wine! Wine, as I think about it anyway, is certainly in the liberal arts tradition.

Chateau Warehouse sur Industrial Park

Part of my course involves fieldwork. In 2008 I took  the class to experience two ideas of wine that they wouldn’t get on a typical winery visit. Ken Avedisian at Cordon Selections wine distributors gave us a tour of his warehouse and explained how the distribution business works. We learned how Ken successfully balances his deep love for wine with the need to make a living selling it. Most of all, I think, we came away with an understanding that wine business is really a people business and that Ken is successful because he never forgets this fact.

Then we visited owner/winemaker Tim Narby at Nota Bene Cellars, where he makes spectacularly good red wines in an anonymous South Seattle industrial park. No fancy chateau here, just focused winemaking using exceptional fruit. We were fortunate to be there during crush, so my students got a clear sense of how wine develops by tasting at many stages from fresh juice to fermentation bin to barrel to finished product. The field trip popped some romantic visions of wine by revealing the reality of how it is made and marketed.

The Big and the Small of It

This year we headed to Woodinville, Washington, which is home to four or five dozen wineries that range from tiny family operations to the large and magnificent Chateau Ste. Michelle. The fruit comes from Eastern Washington, but the wines themselves are made and sold here, close to the market in a classic “cluster” of inter-related businesses. Our agenda was to compare and contrast big and small winemakers to see what we could learn from the experience.

We started the day at JM Cellars, a family winery that has in just a few years  expanded from a couple of barrels to 5000 case annual production. The setting is so spectacular – perched an a hillside next to a wetlands – that Wine Advocate praises the view almost as much as the wine.

Owner/winemaker John Bigelow took us through both the cozy winery and the hands-on production process (it was crush time once again) and I think everyone learned a lot about the art, craft and science of winemaking. It was easy to see that John enjoyed the opportunity to talk with a group that really wanted to learn about wine, not just swirl, sip, spit and move on. It was a great experience.

After an alcohol-free lunch at the Red Hook Brewery pub (I think this made some of my beer-loving students want to cry!) we headed to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is Washington’s largest wine producer by a big margin. CSM and its sister wineries like Columbia Crest produce about three-quarters of all Washington wines. The beautiful Woodinville chateau-style facility makes nearly 2 million cases of white wine each year. The reds are made in Eastern Washington.

Enologist David Rosenthal took time out from the rush of crush to show us how a big winery works. Tanker trucks were arriving every few hours from the Eastern Washington vineyards full of fresh Riesling juice. We were able to taste the fresh juice and at several stages of the fermentation produces, with David drawing wine from the giant stainless steel fermentation tanks. Quite a difference in scale compared to JM!

The Little Winery Inside the Big One

One of the most interesting parts of the visit, for me at least, was to learn the extent to which CSM’s winemakers keep the lots of wine separate through fermentation and aging and, in the case of Chardonnay, make a point of experimenting with many different oak treatments. Instead of just making one big volume wine they actually make dozens and dozens of smaller lots, which can then be assembled in different ways that both reflect different geographic and geologic terroirs, different market ideas of wine (price points and so on, since CSM is in the wine business) and different aesthetic concepts of wine as well.

I’m impressed with CSM’s commitment to keeping wine small while making it big – I don’t know if there are many other wineries that pull off this trick quite so well. Maybe this is why Ted Baseler, CSM’s CEO, was recently name Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year. The citation reads

Ted Baseler is President/CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the most prominent wine company in Washington State. Under his leadership, it has evolved into a high performance organization known for its top quality, world-class wines; for its strategic partnerships with leading wine producers in Italy and Germany; and for collaborating with fellow members of Washington’s wine industry to help raise the region’s profile, worldwide. For his vision, leadership, brand-building, team-building, and region-building accomplishments, Ted Baseler is Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year.

Sounds like Chateau Ste Michelle thinks big and global while acting small and local. Sounds like a contradiction, but it is an appealing idea of wine.

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Special thanks to Ken, Tim, John and David (and to Marci Clevenger at JM Cellars) for making time in their busy schedules for my students and several parents who came along on the trip. Thanks, as well, to the anonymous donor who established the Robert G. Albertson Professorship at the University of Puget Sound, which makes my class and this educational fieldwork possible.

Wine Recession: Winners & Losers

Some people think that the long hard winter of the economic crisis is coming to an end and “green shoots” are emerging. It is too soon to tell if this view is correct, but not too early to begin to assess which parts of the wine economy have been hardest hit by the recession and which have actually benefited. Herewith a brief analysis of winners and losers.

Wine Market Breakdown

There are several ways to break down the winners and losers in the wine market. The first and most obvious is by price segment. Distributors are finding wines in the $25 and up category difficult to move through normal retail or “off premises”  sales channels. This doesn’t mean that everyone is buying Two Buck Chuck, however. The “super-premium” $10-$15 segment continues to grow, for example, although the trading down effect is still significant. The woman who was willing to pay $20 two years ago now aims to spend $15 or less, with similar changes further down the line.

Some wine brands have been particularly well positioned to attract value-seeking buyers. Gallo’s Barefoot wines, for example, have gained market share among the “fighting varietals” and the CMS by Hedges red and white blends have done well in the $10-$12 category, as have many others.

Since most Wine Walls are arranged with the most expensive wines on the top shelf and the cheapest at the bottom, it is almost as if the top shelf has been eliminated and all the other wines moved up one rank. Whether this is a temporary or a permanent shift remains an open question. I explicitly do not assume that everything will reset back to “normal” once the recession’s game of musical chairs has come to an end.

On-premise sales have declined, too, as restaurants have felt the recession’s sting. It has been especially interesting to watch as restaurants adjust by switching to lower cost wines from beyond the “usual suspect” regions. Reds from Spain and whites from Oregon, for example, can be sold profitably at lower price points than the better known French and Californian alternatives. Because buyers may not be as familiar with these wines they can enjoy the adventurous experience of “switching over” rather than simply “trading down.” Restaurants can maintain their margins at lower prices.

Wine Geography

Inevitable the recession has had uneven effects on different regions and countries. The news from Northern California is not good, for example, with many reports of surplus grapes, some that will not find a buyer this year. Cost is a big factor. Napa and Sonoma are high cost growing regions. The rule of thumb is that $2000/ton grapes produce $20/bottle wine — that’s how it pencils out when all the costs and mark-ups are accounted for. It is difficult to know who will buy wine made with $3000/ton grapes in the present market if, as we are told, the $25+ segment is a “dead zone.”

There is better news here in Washington state, on the other hand. Sales of Washington wine are rising at a 9% rate according to recent data. This makes sense because so much of Washington’s wine is positioned in the $15 and under category. About three quarters of all Washington wine is produced by Ste Michelle Wine Estates’s brands such as Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest that provide good quality and good value.

Argentina is another winner. Much like Washington State, Argentina produces good value wines at every price point and has increased sales across the board, although I suspect that Malbec at $10-$12 leads the way. While the overall US wine market has grown by 4.8% over the last year according to the most recent Nielsen Scantrack numbers, sales of Argentinian wines have risen by 46.8% — a tremendous if unsustainable rate of growth. By comparison Chilean wines sales have risen by 12.7%.

New Zealand’s wine industry is heading toward a crisis, as I have written before, but this seems less about the recession than a simply matter of demand and supply. You cannot double and redouble vineyard acreage forever and expect the export market to absorb every drop.

Australia is suffering, too, but like New Zealand I think the recession is a secondary “tipping point” factor. Wine imports from Australia are down 2.5 % for the last 52 weeks and Syrah/Shiraz sales are off 5.2% for the same period. Australia is facing all sorts of problems — drought, fire, recession and so forth — but the biggest problem maybe that “brand Australia” has gone out of sytle, taking the whole Syrah/Shiraz category with it. Even unfashionable Merlot has done better, with 0.8% growth.

The French Connection

I think France is the big loser from the recession, especially the segments that previously earned a “prestige premium,” particularly Bordeaux and Champagne. There is enough Champagne squirreled away in producer cellars to supply the market for several years. I think the big houses would pass on making any new wine this year if they could.

Even the famous chateaux are cutting price in Bordeaux this year, so I can only imagine what things are like for the producers of ordinary bottlings and bulk wine. French wine is a drag on the market even in Britain, where South African wines are surging ahead. Brand France, like Brand Australia, is in steep decline, although for different reasons.

There is a lot to be learned from a close study of the wine recession. The most important, at this point, is that it is more than a decline in demand. There are hints of more profound structural changes taking place. The more things change, the French say, the more they stay the same. I wonder if that will be true this time as the recession’s grip slowly weakens?

8/31/2009 update: An article in today’s Times of London suggests how severe the crisis is in Champagne. (Click on the link to read the rest of the story.)

Hopes of a glut of cheap champagne are set to be dashed when vineyards meet next week to agree on a big cut in production to prop up prices.

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market.

Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said. “The only disagreement is on the scale of the cut.”

The backdrop to the debate is a slump in sales for champagne makers, from 338 million bottles in 2007 to 322 million last year and a predicted 270 million this year. The fall stems in part from a slide in demand, estimated at about 10 per cent, and in part from destocking by distributors, notably in Britain and the United States.

9/3/2009 update:  A great article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the crisis in Champagne. Check it out!

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