The Five Pillars of Walla Walla’s Wine Success

Walla Walla terroir: it’s complicated

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Walla Walla has come of age as a wine region – that was the theme of last week’s column, with the Decanter World Wine Awards International Trophy received by Walla Walla pioneer L’Ecole No 41 for its 2011 Ferguson Vineyard red blend as prime evidence.  The international recognition that L’Ecole has received is terrific, but it more than one reason to believe the region has really come into its own.

Moving the Needle

It is tempting to point to a single person, place or event as the key to a wine region’s success, but the real story is always more complicated. Napa’s stunning emergence as a fine wine center? Yes, Robert Mondavi’s bold move to open his eponymous winery was important. And yes, the stunning triumph at the 1976 Judgement of Paris was important, too. But neither of these  events or even both of them together would have been enough to move the needle so far so fast. I’d say that it takes a village to get the job done, but someone else has already used that line.

Each case is probably different, but for Walla Walla I’ve boiled it down to five important features, which I am calling the “Five Pillars” of Walla Walla’s success to endow them with a bit a of grandeur. They are, in the order I’ll be presenting them, the Land, the People, the Culture, the History and finally, what I am calling the Spark. This week I look at the Land.

Dirt Matters

Geography is the basis of most wine region definitions but sometimes border lines on a map conceal more than they reveal about the wine-growing conditions within. This is partly due to the fact that AVA borders end up being as much about politics and economics as soil types. I wrote about the controversies and compromises that went into the Stags Leap AVA in Wine Wars, for example, and I’ve read that the final compromise decision on the borders of the original Napa Valley AVA were based on the reach of the Napa phone system not any geological survey.

When you think of the Walla Walla Valley AVA you imagine a more or less uniform valley terroir, but when you actually examine it you find really quite stunning complexity. That’s the first pillar – the Land. Walla Walla is a prime wine region because it doesn’t  just talk about terroir, it has terroirs.

Looking down on Les Collines

Looking down on Les Collines


Learning the Lie of the Land

You won’t find many vines planted on the valley floor in Walla Walla simply because the threat of winter freeze is too high (with one exception – see below).  Slope, aspect and elevation are very important in order to get air drainage that protects the vines to a certain extent.  Even with care in site selection some growers have adopted the practice of the buried cane or even burying vines themselves for the winter as insurance policies against a hard freeze.

We were fortunate to attend a lecture on the Walla Walla terroir given by geologist (and Whitman College professor)  Kevin Pogue and to have noted viticulturalist Alan Busacca guide us through three vineyards that illustrated three distinctly different terroir types. We had the pleasure of tasting wines from each area in the vineyards that produced them, which was a special treat.

We started at Les Collines vineyard, an example of a loess-covered terrace site according to my notes.  The wind-blown silt goes down dozens of feet and the vine roots drill down to the complex coarse grained Missoula flood deposits that lie below. Les Collines supplies grapes to many of Walla Walla’s best winemakers. Although the growing conditions look much the same throughout the large vineyard as you stare down the slope (see photo) we saw that there altitude and other factors created a surprising diversity of micro-terroirs, which are taken into account in selecting grape varieties for each block.

Yellow Bird vineyard

Yellow Bird vineyard

The dry farmed Yellow Bird vineyard in Mill Creek Valley is an example of a second terroir type — loess-draped foothills with fine-textured clay-rich soils and complex minerality derived from Missoula flood deposits.  We also visited one of the vineyards that Chris Figgins has developed in this area and the estate vineyard of Walla Walla Vintners, too. The wines we tasted from this valley were savory and distinctive — different from what we tasted at Les Collines.

We visited “The Rocks” vineyard area in Milton-Freewater, Oregon to see the alluvial fan terroir and it sure was rocky!  The rocks, built up over centuries are more than 100 feet deep. (One winery that draws fruit from this area calls itself Balboa. Rocky Balboa – get it?).  Walla Walla actually has two alluvial fan areas, this one on the Oregon side of the border that is planted with grapes and tree fruit and the other on the Washington side that, alas, is now pretty much completely covered by the city of Walla Walla itself. Damn! Hate to waste good vineyard potential that way!

In "The Rocks"

In “The Rocks”

The alluvial fan area is an exception to the rule that grape vines are not planted on the valley floor because of the winter freeze threat. Growers are willing to tolerate the freeze risk because of the distinctiveness of the fruit.  Everyone expects the TTB to soon act on a proposal for Walla Walla’s first sub-AVA – The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, which will officially recognize this unusual land.

There’s a final terroir type that we weren’t able to explore on this trip – the canyons and steep slopes that radiate from the valley. Gotta go there next time because everyone was talking about the potential for cool climate wine grapes such as Riesling and Pinot Noir.

A trench cut into the vineyard suggests the depth of the rocky soil.

A trench cut into the vineyard suggests the depth of the rocky soil.

Telling Terroir’s Story

If it is true that wine is made in the vineyard, then terroir – the Land in my list of pillars – is a critical factor and Walla Walla has distinctive terroirs for wine enthusiasts to explore and enjoy. Of course not everyone agrees that wine is made in the vineyard and one mischievous winemaker (I won’t reveal who) was passing around a wine for us to taste. Guess what it is and where it comes from, he said. I sniffed and swirled and tasted and I knew just what it was because I had tasted it before recently. That’s Grenache from the Rocks, I said with some confidence. That’s what it is supposed to taste like, he laughed, but it is actually Merlot from a completely different vineyard site. He has deliberately manipulated the wine in the cellar to produce an unlikely Cayuse impostor.

Walla Walla is noteworthy for the variety that the land presents and just to make the point Alan and Kevin took us to one road cut area where we could clearly see the differences.  Walking just 30 feet we moved from the rocky alluvial fan to a silty loess-covered terrace where everything about the grapes and vines was much difference. Quite an experience.

Okay, Walla Walla has terroir, I’ve seen it myself,  but I guess terroir by itself isn’t everything , but it is not nothing, either, no matter what some might say.   But wait — there’s more. Come back for more about the pillars of Walla Walla wine success.

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Photos by contributing editor Sue Veseth. Special thanks to Kevin Pogue and Alan Busacca for sharing their expertise with us. Thanks as well to the McKibbens and their team at Les Collines, Chris Figgins,  Myles Anderson, Gordy Venneri, the folks from Watermill and Cayuse, and everyone else we met on this research trip.

Economic Effects of Washington Liquor Initiatives

This is the third in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws  (click here to read the first and second segments). How would Washington Initiatives I-1100 and I-1105 affect wine makers and wine consumers? Let’s look at wine makers first.

Wine producers in Washington are not united either in support of or opposition to the initiatives. One industry group, The Washington Wine Institute, publicly opposes both initiatives, for example, while the Family Wineries of Washington State supports I-1100 but opposes I-1105.

Winners & Losers

Both initiatives would create more avenues of competition for wineries by removing state restrictions that prevented discounted prices, negotiated payment schedules and so forth. Based on my conversations it seems that some wineries would welcome the opportunity to compete  using a fuller range of business strategies. They would like to be able to go after the business they want and to reward retailers and restaurants that carry the full range of their products or who make long term commitments.

Other wine makers are concerned that they may be disadvantaged in this new environment because they lack the resources or expertise to compete effectively. Interestingly, it is not just small wineries who want to avoid competition and not just large ones who embrace it. Obviously it is a complicated matter.

One wine maker candidly told me that it is hard to know if the gains will outweigh the losses.  This person saw obvious areas for new business expansion but realized there would be negative effects on margins and the need for more capital to accommodate extended payments. I sensed a very pragmatic attitude:  wine is a business and business people have to cope with whatever is thrown at them whether it is Mother Nature (a late harvest) or a change in state liquor laws.

My conversations reminded me of Olivier Torres’ discussion of the difference between French and American business strategy in his book The Wine Wars. American entrepreneurs, Torres says, look for new opportunities, taking risks, while the French business strategy is more about fending off threats. This is an oversimplified stereotype, of course, but it does seem to capture a bit of the wine war raging today in Washington state, where those with “French” attitudes are not necessarily from France.

Will Small Wineries Get Squeezed?

Television ads like the one I have inserted above suggest that small wineries would be especially hard hit by the new laws. A local news analysis of this ad raises some doubts about this claim (see  this King5 report). Will small local wineries get crowded off the shelf? Here’s my brief analysis.

I do think that large wine companies will have an advantage if the law is changed, but they have obvious economic advantages now, so this is nothing new. I would not be surprised to see big companies (Constellation Brands, Gallo, etc) increase their relative share of retail shelf space since they have the resources to offer discounts and incentives.

It is also possible that spirits companies and distributors will bring associated wine brands with them as they rush to fill their newly opened retail market niche if the initiatives pass, adding to the “crowding out” effect.  Retailers are trying to streamline their operations and reduced the number of suppliers they deal with, giving “drinks” companies that can supply wine, beer and spirits an advantage.

This effect will differ by type of retail account, of course, and be different for fine dining versus casual dining restaurant sales. In the supermarket segment, for example, you can already see differences in the relative incidence of the big producer portfolios in Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway stores compared with regional chains like Metropolitan Market.

Although small wineries might get somewhat less shelf space, they certainly will not disappear from wine shelves and restaurant lists. Wine enthusiasts value diversity and smart sellers fill their shelves accordingly. That’s why a typical upscale supermarket offers 1500-2500 wine choices, at least ten times the number of options in any other product category. Retail wine margins are high and sellers profit by catering to their customers’ desire for a wide range of choices.

I think the competition among smaller winemakers will be more of a factor than between the big corporations and the small family wineries. There are hundreds of small wineries in Washington state all seeking a place at the retail table. Right now it is pretty difficult for the maker of a $40 Walla Walla Syrah to get shelf space (or distributor representation) and many producers are sensibly reconfiguring their business plans to focus more on direct sales. This will remain a good strategy if the initiatives pass, but makers who want to compete for shelf space will have more tools at their disposal.

And That’s A Good Thing?

Bottom line: small wineries will get squeezed by the big boys, but other small wineries are the real competition (hence the lack of a consensus among wine makers) and the initiatives will make this competition much more intense.

Is this a good thing? Well, it will probably be good for many consumers who will benefit from lower wine prices. They will likely have more (but different) wines to choose from too. Whether the new choices will be better is bound to be a matter of taste. If, as some have suggested, big box drinks retailers Bevmo and Total Wine open outlets in Washington it will change in significant ways the market terrain.

At the Ballot Box

How am I going to vote? The issue is complicated enough that I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am unlikely to vote for I-1105, however, since it seems like a stumbling half-step towards market liberalization.

I find the wine market aspects of I-1100 appealing and, as an economist, I am programmed to believe in the benefits of competition, but I am still concerned about the liquor law changes. I don’t know how making spirits cheaper and more readily  available will help solve the public health and safety problems associated with liquor consumption. Many will disagree with this view and I respect their opinions.

I guess I’m going to have to weigh the pros and cons before I cast my ballot just like everyone else.

Getting Serious About Washington Wine

“Wine is not a serious subject. Its point is to give pleasure.” This is what Jancis Robinson says in the opening segment of her BBC series on wine.

It is pretty obvious that Paul Gregutt (author of Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide 2/e; University of California Press, 2010) didn’t get the message because he seems to take wine pretty seriously and manages to do so without sacrificing pleasure. The new edition of his book is a serious analysis of Washington wine that is seriously interesting.

Wine for Nerds?

Is there an audience for serious wine writing? Certainly Jancis Robinson must think so, despite her disclaimer, since her books and articles are so comprehensive. Gregutt knows this audience, too. When he begins chapter 4 by saying “If you are the type of person who delights in reading through every scrap of information on the back labels of wine bottles …” he must be aware that this description will apply to nearly every one of his readers, of which there are sufficient numbers to justify a second edition of this book just three years after the appearance of the first.

Gregutt’s book is unusual in that it is neither a coffee table photo album nor a wine tourism guidebook (the two most popular formats for northwest regional wine books). Rather it is a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the continuing development of the Washington wine industry. Gregutt takes us through the history of Washington wine followed by a detailed analysis of the terroir (Washington’s AVAs), the grape varietals (with recommended producers for each wine type) and the most important vineyards (what a great idea). Then and only then does he begin a survey of wineries. The message is clear: wine is made in the vineyard before it is made in the cellar and there is a lot to know if you want to understand it.

The focus is clearly on AVAs, vineyards and wineries — the constants of Washington wine —  not individual wines that can change from vintage to vintage, although an appendix contains Gregutt’s “Top 100 Washington wine” lists for the last few years for those who want to know more specifically what to look for on shop shelves.

What’s New?

What’s new in the second edition (and is it enough to justify replacing your copy of the first edition)? Well, there is a great deal of new material reflecting the fact that the Washington wine industry has experienced so much recent growth.  There are new AVAs, of course (Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan) and many new wineries (now up to 650+ for the state). Gregutt has doubled the number of vineyards (a top twenty list) and wineries (about 300 in this edition), making this volume far more comprehensive in this regard than the first edition.

I’d say the additional and updated material easily justifies a new edition. And, with the way things are changing, I suppose a third edition will be needed in a few years.

One aspect of the book that is sure to be controversial is the way Gregutt has organized his analysis of the most important wineries in the state. If this were a wine tourism book, I suppose he would have organized them by regions or wine roads and provided tasting room hours and so forth. But he didn’t and that’s a good thing, since the internet is the best place to find that sort of often-updated information.

Instead, Gregutt organized the wineries into four categories, starting with “five star” superstars that both produce great wines but also provide important leadership, moving down through four stars, three stars and then a “rising stars” category.  Where you put a winery in this taxonomy is necessarily problematic, since each of us might use different criteria or weigh the same factors differently. Hence the potential for debate.

Some ratings are surely uncontroversial (Leonetti and Quilceda Creek are superstars, of course), but others are likely to generate discussion. Gregutt is interested in the wines, of course, but also the wineries’ impacts on the Washington wine industry, so the huge Chateau Ste. Michelle appears in the five star list alongside tiny Fielding Hills – each very important to the Washington industry, but in very different ways.

Hedges Family Estates and Corliss Estates (two wineries owned by University of Puget Sound graduates) receive four stars, but I think you could make a case for “promotion” to the top group. For Hedges it would be based upon its leadership in development of the Red Mountain AVA and promotion of Washington wine abroad. For Corliss, it is the single-minded commitment to the highest vision of excellence — an attempt to redefine what Washington wine can be. Four stars or five? Such questions are pleasurable recreation for wine nerds like me.

More for Wine Nerds?

The success of Gregutt’s book has me wondering what other products wine nerds might be willing to buy. Hopefully, of course, they’ll want copies of my book when it comes out in 2011, but maybe there’s an even broader market for wine nerd products.

De Long’s periodic table of wine grape varietals (see below) is a great wine nerd item. I can spend hours looking at it and thinking about the different relationships it proposes. Excellent! De Long’s regional wine maps are great, too.

And then there are wine games, like Winerd the Game shown above. Winerd has a colorful playing board (decorated with faux wine labels), 276 quiz cards and includes a blind tasting test component. Pretty nerdy and probably pretty fun, too, since it has a strong educational component and people always seem to enjoy learning about wine.

I actually have a sealed Winerd game box on my game shelf. Nerdy, yes — and I’m sure it will be fun to play when I eventually get around to it. But apparently I’d rather be drinking wine (and reading nerdy books like Paul Gregutt’s).

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.

Stimulus Package: Refreshing but Restrained

cavatappiPeople are always asking me what I think about the stimulus package and they never seem to be satisfied with my answers.

What Stimulus Package?

For a while I was telling people, “Stimulus package? What stimulus package?” My reasoning was that the tax cuts were more political than economics — no one seriously thought they would stimulate much consumer spending — and the big government spending programs will take several quarters to kick in. Only a small percentage of the money has been spent so far. The promise of economic stimulus in six or nine months is a useful thing, but there hasn’t been much in the way of a direct effect yet.

Here in Washington State, cutbacks at the state level seem to be more than offsetting whatever Federal stimulus there has been. Although the Washington situation is very serious (see the recent Economist article on the recession in this state), things could be worse — think California.

Too Soon to Tell

Recently I’ve changed my tune a bit. Stimulus package? Too soon to tell, I say, or impossible to know. These are both good answers even if my friends don’t like them. Too soon to tell because it will take more time before the full effects, positive and negative, are felt. Too soon to tell because we haven’t figured out yet  how to deal with the inevitable consequences of the recent spectacular money creation and public debt increases. Some people fear that the cure to these problems will be more deadly than the recession’s disease.

Impossible to tell? Yes, because economics isn’t a hard science and we don’t have the luxury of running controlled experiments. We know that unemployment has increased to 9.5% with the stimulus package in place — that’s pretty shocking — but how high would it have been without the federal emergency programs? We will never know for sure, so these policies are sure to be debated back and forth for years.

No one seems to appreciate my analysis of the economic stimulus package so I’m going to change gears again. Now when people ask me my opinion I’m going to give them a wine review. That’s because I recently discovered an interesting white wine called Cavatappi Stimulus Package 2008.

In Vino Stimulus

Cavatappi (it means corkscrew in Italian) is a winery founded some years ago by former restaurateur and Italian wine lover Peter Dow. Cavatappi produces mainly Washington-grown Italian varietal wines (23 vintages of Washington Nebbiolo and Sangiovese). I’ve seen a Cavatappi white blend before, but this is the first one with an economic crisis hook. I couldn’t find anything about the wine on the web so I wrote to Peter Dow. He reports that

It is a blend of SB and Viognier. I tasted a similar wine in the Rhone last winter that was a Marsanne Roussane and SB blend and I really liked it.  It is designed to be a simple summer quaffer and at 10.00 retail it is being well received.

I was speculating about what message Cavatappi is trying to send by naming this white blend in honor of the economic stimulus program. Is it to show support for the Obama plan? To send a message to consumers: spend your tax savings on wine? Or maybe it’s a cash flow thing — white wines can be turned over relatively quickly, providing an economic stimulus to the winemaker. Buy this wine and stimulate the Cavatappi economy!

Unfortunately the correct answer is much less complicated. “I used the name because I thought there was some humor in it, but mainly wanted to see if I could get it by the TTB,” according to Peter. Apparently he did!

So here’s the bottom line: what do I think of the stimulus package? Refreshing, but restrained. (I’m not a skilled wine taster but it seems to me that the Viognier tames the Sauvignon Blanc and shapes it a bit.) It made a nice match with a hearty salad at dinner last night.

Refreshing but restrained. Not a perfect description of the economic stimulus package, but not completely off the mark either.

And I can honestly recommend this stimulus to all my friends. (Or almost all of them: ten dollars is more than my senior cheap wine researcher  Michael Morrell likes to spend — I guess you can’t please everyone.)

AVAs: Good, Bad or Ugly?

The birth of a new AVA (American Viticultural Area) is generally greeted like the birth of a baby – a good thing, a cause for celebration.  So a recent Wine Spectator article was somewhat bittersweet – it announced two successful births (Snipes Mountain AVA and Lake Chelan AVA – both in Washington State) and one failure.  But I’m not sure that that “two cheers” is necessarily the right toast (and I found myself quoted to this effect in the Wine Spectator).  My problem, I guess, is that I can’t stop thinking like an economist, even when it comes to good news like new AVAs.

It isn’t that AVAs are bad, it is just that they are complicated and new AVAs produce both benefits, which are celebrated, and costs, which economists like me can’t seem to ignore.

Good or Bad?

As I have said in a pervious post, the American Viticultural Area is an ill-defined concept.  It is a geographic indicator, of course, telling the buyer that a high percentage of the grapes used to make a particular wine come from a specific geographic area, but its significance beyond that is unclear.

An AVA doesn’t necessarily indicate a particular style of wine, for example, the way some European AOC rules do.  AOC protocols often specify region, grape varieties, levels of ripeness and even the nature of particular blends that are permitted or sometimes required.  Chianti is a region in Tuscany, for example, but it is also a recipe (albeit a flexible recipe) for the wines that carry that label.  There can be great variation among wines from a given AOC, but the idea is that they represent variations on a theme rather than completely different wines.

AVAs don’t necessarily define terroir either.  Many AVAs are quite large and contain many different soil types and microclimates.  The Napa Valley AVA, for example, encompasses rather different condition in the North than the South and on the hillsides and valley floor.  The Columbia Valley AVA in Washington State takes this to the next level in terms of terroir diversity.

Even the relatively small Snipes Mountain AVA (a sub-AVA of the Columbia Valley) includes rather dramatic differences in growing conditions.  As Kevin Pogue of VinTerra Consulting said in a comment on a previous Wine Economist post:

It’s impossible to equate US AVAs with terroir. They’re just too big and there’s too much variability in all the physical parameters (soil, bedrock, climate, geomorphology). I had temperature monitors on Snipes Mountain (one of the smallest AVAs) during the growing season last year, and they showed huge variations in several important climate parameters. The top part of Snipes Mountain rises above the cold air pool that regularly forms in the Yakima Valley and so it’s much warmer and has a much longer growing season. The Walla Walla AVA has at least 4 distinct soil terroirs and the average annual rainfall varies from 7 to 24 inches within its boundaries!

In Economics Veritas

While the viticultural idea of AVAs is ill-defined the economic idea of AVAs is relatively clear.  AVAs are brands, but not the type of brands you are used to thinking of.  Brands have a bad reputation among wine consumers because they are associated with insipid wines sold as package goods – Franzia, Yellow Tail, Two Buck Chuck.  While these wines clearly serve a purpose in the marketplace and are obviously a satisfactory choice to the people who buy them, they are seen by wine enthusiasts as an insult to the concept of fine wine.  They are industrial wine, not terroir wine, if you see what I mean.

Economists don’t react so strongly to the idea of a brand, however.  To us brands are just devices that producers use to send signals to buyers in markets with costly information. You may or may not like to eat at McDonalds, for example, but you know what to expect when you go there.  Brands do the same thing for Budweiser, Coca Cola and Starbucks.

Private brands do the same thing for wines if you think about Robert Mondavi, Clos du Val or Screaming Eagle. You have a good idea of what you are getting in terms of style and quality because producers invest in the brands to establish reputations.  Having a well known and reliable brand is a great advantage in the marketplace.

The main difference between private brands like these and AVAs is this: AVAs are communal brands.  They don’t belong to any single producer but rather to anyone who sources grapes from the region.  Hence the great difference in style that appears as different makers first seek the AVA designation to differentiate themselves from wineries in other areas and then further to differentiate themselves from other makers within the AVA.  The result is not necessarily harmonious and so the AVA concept loses value to consumers.

Essentially the problem is that the incentive to invest in the communal brand is ultimately weaker than the incentive to invest in the private brand once the AVA has been established.  This makes sense since benefits from an improved communal brand must be shared while benefits from improving your own private brand are yours alone. The market significance of the AVA can quickly disappear.

The problem gets worse as AVAs increase in number, making it more and more difficult for consumers to understand what qualities are associated with each.  As I say in the Wine Spectator article, each new AVA benefits a small set of producers by giving them a new brand, but the collective result (the number of AVAs is now approaching 200) is in fact to reduce the significance of AVAs generally.  I think it is possible that private brands gain market power as collective AVAs proliferate.  And that’s exactly the opposite of what AVAs are supposed to do.

The Ugly Side

I felt bad in raising my doubts about AVAs because I know and admire some of the winemakers in the new Lake Chelan AVA (especially Tsillan Cellars and Nefarious Cellars) and I didn’t want to rain on their parade. But I stopped feeling guilty when I discovered an article by A to Z Wineworks CEO Bill Hatcher on the Oregon Wine Press website. The continued proliferation of AVAs and sub-AVAs in Oregon, Bill says, isn’t good or even bad.  It’s downright ugly!

Oregon’s wine industry is tiny compared to California and small relative to Washington State.  But it is big in AVAs, as the map above indicates, with sixteen AVAs overall and six sub AVAs within the Willamette Valley region itself.  Wow!  Bill writes that …

Our fixation on sub-appellations at the expense of raising the profile of Oregon over the past years is coming back to haunt us. As the economy tailspins, consumers, restaurateurs and retailers are returning to familiar roots. The results are pruned wine lists, repetitive shelf facings of monolithic national brands and small wineries being culled from wholesaler books. Gone are the halcyon days when someone picked up a $50 bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir in Memphis and said, “Cool, I didn’t know they were making wine in Oregon; let’s give it a try.”

If the majority of Americans cannot point to Iraq on a world map, do we really expect them to pinpoint the Eola Hills or Chehalem Mountains, let alone deconstruct the subtleties between the two? Further underscoring that presumptiveness, a recent study commissioned by the Oregon Wine Board revealed that over half the respondents in our target market were largely unfamiliar with Oregon as a wine-producing region. The sub-appellation movement reached absurdity with the Snake River AVA, containing one Oregon vineyard and no wineries, meaning that we had, in fact, finally parsed an appellation to someone’s backyard.

Bill Hatcher is smart and bold.  His A to Z Wineworks is now the largest single producer in Oregon and he thus has an unusually strong interest in seeing the Oregon brand strengthened since this would strengthen his own brand as well.  He argues that a complex web of sub-AVAs provides few benefits and potentially large costs. An ugly situation, but an understandable one.  It is what Mancur Olson characterized as the tension between narrow and encompassing interests. Bill Hatcher concludes

The industry has come to be driven more by politics and narrow self-interest rather than collective marketing economics or common sense, a polemic we can no longer afford (if we ever could) in these precarious times. More than a few wineries will fail in the coming months and more than a few vineyards will not be harvested. This is not the time for intellectually bankrupt parlor debates as to whose soil is redder and whose vineyard practices are greener, but rather a time to unite and underwrite the commonwealth of Oregon.

The economic crisis is likely to intensify the tension between narrow and encompassing interests and between private and communal brands.  The strong are likely to get stronger in this environment, I think, and as Bill Hatcher suggests, some of the weak will fade away.

Wine in Restaurants: Recent Trends

mainpage_april08.jpgEach year Wine & Spirits publishes a special issue that reports the results of their annual survey of wine sales in restaurants — information of more use to trade professionals, I imagine, than to wine lifestyle readers. Although the sample is relatively small — 309 Zagat -ranked U.S. restaurants participated in the 2008 survey — and restaurant wine sales are probably unrepresentative of broader market sales, I still find the trends reported here to be of interest, especially since many of them reinforce data I have found elsewhere.

More and More.

Some of the trends are unsurprising to any restaurant wine-drinker. The importance of wine in restaurants continues to grow — over 70% of the restaurants reported that wine was a larger percentage of their total sales in 2007 compared with 2006. More restaurants are paying more attention to wine and wine-drinkers and increasing sales accordingly. A second non-surprise is this: restaurant wine costs more. More than 60 percent of the surveyed restaurants reported that the average price of the wine they sold increased in the last year. Personally I have been staggered at the price of wine in some restaurants recently. There are both demand and supply drivers behind this trend.

Restaurants have an incentive to raise wine prices, of course, but nobody forces diners to buy the stuff. Some of the price increase is demand-side — educated (or status-seeking) wine consumers choosing more prestigious and expensive bottles. Smart restauranteurs and their sommeliers take advantage of the wine boom by offering interesting and hard-to-find wines, which attract wine enthusiast diners and generate higher revenues. So higher prices are the result of education, enthusiasm and strategic behavior. We pay more because we are willing to pay more, up to a point at least.

Even Less is More

The falling dollar is another part of this trend. Cheap dollars mean that restaurants have to pay more for imported wines, which drives up costs and prices. The pass through effect of the exchange rate changes is not yet complete, however, so you can expect even higher prices in the future. Rising wine costs are a supply-side driver of higher wine prices generally. The recent trend to more wines from Argentina and Chile is partly a reflection of the fact that the dollar has not fallen quite so far relative to these currencies, so South American wine is a relative bargain.

The weak dollar also affects the demand side. Many of the surveyed restaurants are located in transnational hub cities where international travelers are a significant factor. Foreign tourists and business travelers take advantage of the weak dollar to treat themselves to otherwise more expensive wines when they dine in the U.S., thus driving up the price averages. This is not an insignificant factor for many of the upscale urban eateries that participate in the Wine & Spirits survey.

Prices continue to rise for even the most inexpensive restaurant wines. About 35 percent of the restaurants reported that they have increased the price of the least expensive wine on their list in the last year. In my experience, however, no one ever orders the least expensive bottle on a wine list. The real indicator would be the price of the second cheapest bottle. I imagine that it costs more now, too.With the price of wine edging up relentlessly it is not surprising to find that restaurants and wine drinkers are paying more attention to by-the-glass sales. More restaurants are offering more wines (and more interesting wines) by the glass as well as the bottle. The average price reported by the survey rose to a new high of $11.05.

The trend toward rising wine prices is not likely to slow very much in the future (see my previous post about The End of Cheap Wine), but this trend is not uniform across the entire wine list. Surveyed restaurants reported steep declines in sales of Merlot and Chardonnay, for example, and flat sales of Cabernet Sauvignon. Average sales prices actually declined for Cab and Merlot. Pinto Noir prices and sales have increased again, as you might expect.

Hot or Not?

No sales trend data were reported for two supposed “hot” wines: Riesling and Syrah. Riesling is the sommelier’s favorite, according the Wine & Spirits (and I don’t disagree), because it is so food-friendly, but it does not seem to be an important factor in restaurants sales. I have my own theories about this, but no facts, so I won’t speculate at this time. I’ll try to find out more at the Riesling Rendezvous that Ste Michelle Wine Estates is organizing this summer.

The case of Syrah is interesting, too. Wine & Spirits says that there was a Syrah/Shiraz boom a few years ago, but that it has faded and Syrah has now settled into a minor niche-role on the restaurant wine list. I suppose that this reflects the changing circumstances of Australian wine (see The Wizards of Oz) more than anything else since so many people identify Australian wine with Shiraz and vice versa.

The fact that Riesling and Syrah don’t figure prominently in restaurant sales suggests to me that restaurant buyers as a group are less adventurous than you might think. Rather than using an unfamiliar wine list as an open invitation to experimentation I think they might on average be looking to avoid making a faux pas, either in terms of the wine they choose or the social signals that they send to the others seated around the table with them. Wine trends in restaurants might, therefore, lag behind wine trends generally rather than leading them. Or it could be that restaurants believe that their patrons are unadventurous and wine lists reflect this, focusing mainly on old standbys rather than hot trends. The result would be the same in either case.

If this is true then Riesling and Syrah will move up on the restaurant wine lists, if they do at all, only after they have become more prominent in other wine venues. Or at least winegrowers in Washington State should hope that this will happen. Because, my goodness, we seem to be making a lot of Riesling and Syrah!

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