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.]


Taste Washington Seminars / March 26, 2011

In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style

Bruce Schoenfeld (Travel & Leisure Magazine)
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Shayn Bjornholm MS (Washington State Wine Commission)
Sandy Block MW (Legal Seafoods)
Drew Hendricks MS (Pappas Brothers)
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

8 responses

  1. Great summary of the event, I was at the seminar too, and 100% agree with your conclusions. Furthermore, I reject one of the underlying, yet unstated, premises of the session: That a wine region has to have a style to be great. This looks at the state as being too narrow. Does France have a singular style, does Italy, does Spain, realistically does California? No, and much of the wine world is starting to move to thier focus to micro-regions like AVA’s. It is going to take a long time for the larger “consumer” audience to learn but it will happen. What the title of the seminar should of been is, “Is the Washington Wine Commission’s Market Arm to Impatient?” The french have been making and selling wine for 1000s of years, we have been doing it for 60, some time GREAT things take a little time for full recognition.

  2. I love Washington wine, but I agree there’s a wide range in style. For example, I’ve found Washington Cabernet Sauvignon to be consistently good, but there’s little in common between the velvetiness of Seven Hills, the high-end fruit bombs of Sineann and the very structured Fidelitas cabs that require some bottle age. But the larger issue is that I can find none of these on store shelves in the Midwest. Few Washington wineries beyond Columbia Crest, Chateau St. Michelle and various bottlings of K Vintners appear to have wide enough distribution to help Washington build a reputation at all. On the other hand, if you drink wine at all, you will have had Cabs and Chardonnay from California. So my question as a consumer is this: What’s the end game? For the high-end, lower production wineries, I suppose it’s raising the bottle price. But reaching the broad distribution necessary to build a national reputation likely would mean lots of consolidation among the myriad of small wineries that seem to make up most of the wine business in Washington. I love those small wineries, and will travel to find them, but people like me are a pretty small subset of wine consumers.

  3. Isn’t that the problem that all U.S. wine regions that aren’t California have? Consumers expect all U.S. wine to taste like California wine, so producers who aren’t from California are caught between a rock and a hard place.

  4. The premise of the seminar is flawed. To try to put one singular stamp on a state that grows such a wide variety of grapes in so many different areas seems crazy, although I understand the desire. As a wine professional since 1991 I love being able to put forward a wine as representative of the region, but even Chablis has producers who use oak and those who do not, resulting in very different wines.
    Chablis and Barolo (part of the seminar’s tasting) have about 10,000 acres and 4,300 acres (Wikipedia) planted respectively. They grow only one grape each, Chardonnay and Nebbiolo.
    While Walla Walla has much less vineyard acreage (1,800 according to WallaWallaWine.com) more than a dozen varieties are planted. There may not be a “Singular Style” for this AVA much less the entire state.
    If a consistent goal of finding “the right” grapes for certain areas continues then perhaps, with enough time, a style will emerge. In the meantime, wineries offering double digit bottlings from five or more varieties (one Washington producer offers 29 different wines from 19 varieties) will hinder a cohesive identity.
    They also make things more confusing…but perhaps more interesting as well.

  5. I find this really interesting as Hawke’s Bay in NZ has had similar issues over the years. (I’m the EO of the regional wine association). Over the last seven years there has been considerable discussion as to what Hawke’s Bay should hand it’s hat on – Merlot, Syrah, blended reds etc. Some feel we should focus on diversity however this can be difficult for tradtional wine consumers to get their heads around. The simplest way forward has been to distinguish ourselves from Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc with a red wine platform.

    What really stood out in your article was the descriptor “old world structure and new world fruit” as this is a phrase we have used for quite some time. We’re also the oldest wine region in NZ and the second biggest – the red wine story has allowed us to tell the history, the terroir and other varieties as well.

    Have a look at http://www.winehawkesbay.co.nz/docs/HBWG%20Email%20version%20of%20Interactive.pdf if you’d like to see how we tell our wine story to international media and trade.

  6. Interesting choice of WA wines in that lineup. That Cayuse wine is actually grown and made in Oregon. The WWC doesn’t want to talk about that. In a big head slapper, neither does the Oregon Wine Board. But, that is another discussion. Interesting that it was chosen. I wonder why?

    The problem with WA is not really at the top end. There are plenty of people in the Seattle Metro Area to buy those wines. Take the St. Michelle portfolio out of the equation and what mid-to-low tier priced wine do you have with wider distribution? Cathy is 100% correct on this point.

    If you want to get recognition, you’re going to have
    to have a CA vs. WA wine competition. Ask folks on the East Coast if WA makes wine. You’ll get many strange looks. How much did that WS Wine of the Year help the WA wine industry?

    You need to take straight aim at California. Price vs. Quality ratios….etc, etc, etc. Value and style are what WA have. Consistency too. But the Wine Curmudgeon is 1000% right. The avg. US consumer thinks only CA makes quality wine…plus, they beat the pants off those damn French.

    I agree with Mr. Veseth, I would beat that Riesling drum all day long. You have amazing QPR (which CAN compete with German offerings), and you have big money behind it. You even have German money in that game too. Didn’t it dawn on someone from the WWC that folks from Deutschland were buying up Riesling vineyards, left and right? WA never made Riesling cool, or at least hasn’t yet.

  7. I respectfully disagree with Jeff -WA Riesling has ALWAYS been cool-since the eighties!

    I echo Rod and Cathy’s points above. And one more-why do wine regions HAVE to be cool-the analogy is a bubble in a financial asset class. What goes up, must come down. The problem arises when there has been too much malinvestment in capacity and production as the bubble grows. Slow and steady wins the race…..

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