Lettie Teague wrote a Wall Street Journal column back in 2010 called “Stalking the Wines of Washington.” In it she complained about her difficulty finding Washington wines in the New York City area. There’s just no demand, she was told, so wine shops don’t bother with Washington wines.
The Incredible Story
That’s incredible, I thought as I read Lettie’s story, since so many Washington wines are both very good (served at White House dinners, we are told) and very good values, too. Hard to believe that smart New Yorkers aren’t interested in these wines! So I decided to do a little fieldwork on the question during my recent East Coast speaking tour to see if the situation has changed.
OK, am I the only one who thinks visiting out-of-town wine shops is a fun way to spend the day? In this case I headed for the Morrell & Co store in Rockefeller Center and the Sherry Lehmann shop a few blocks away. Two wine shops is a very small sample size, so this study isn’t statistically significant, but these are the flagships of the region’s wine fleet, so surely they reveal something. Here’s what I found.
Both stores were smaller than I expected given their fame — I guess I didn’t factor in Manhattan retail floor space costs when I imagined what they would look like. But the number of bottles isn’t as important as the quality of the selection (that’s the key to Costco’s wine selling success).
New York State of Wine
My attempt to find Washington red wines in these stores was not very successful. I managed to locate a wine from Betz Family Winery at Morrell and a modestly priced red blend from Claar Cellars at Sherry Lehmann. And that was it for Washington reds. I might have missed a bottle or two (I blame my bifocals), but even if I did the selection was pretty limited. I didn’t check the white wines — maybe there were more over there.
There were plenty of French and Italian wines. Sherry Lehmann’s Burgundy selection made my mouth water and my credit card cry. Lots of great wines from Bordeaux, too. But where was the Washington wine section? Nowhere. No California wine territory, either. They were all grouped together as “American wines,” suggesting that Sherry Lehmann’s customers might be more interested in the fine points of French geography than domestic wine terroir. And apparently almost completely uninterested in Washington. Why?
Supply Side Theory
I talked a bit with a friend who knows New York wine business pretty well and we came up with a couple of theories. Maybe it is a supply-side problem — distribution?
Yes, I suppose that could be the case. Distribution inefficiencies usually affect the “middle market” the most. Iconic wines (and I’d put the Betz wine in this category) get distribution and so do larger volume wines (Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, etc), but in-between producers (like Claar Cellars) get squeezed out.
As you can see, my “small n” obversations aren’t completely consistent with a supply-side explanation, although you cannot rule it out, either. So what about demand?
Demand Side Theory
Maybe the demand just isn’t there as the shop owners told Lettie Teague. So why not? Well, here’s where a second set of observations is useful. While I was looking for Washington wines I also kept an eye out for Oregon Pinot Noir. And, while the Washington wines were all but invisible, I discovered a handful of interesting Oregon Pinots in each store.
So now the question gets more interesting. Why is Oregon part of the New York state of wine but not Washington? Here my NYC friend (who is a Washington wine fan) offered another theory: Oregon stands for something concrete in the crowded New York market, but Washington doesn’t.
When you think of Oregon wine you think of Pinot Noir because that’s its signature wine variety and demand-side market focus. But what do you think of when you think of Washington? Well, that’s the problem because Washington makes so many great wines but lacks a signature variety or style. I’ve written about this situation before and I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but you can see how it can be a demand side problem.
A final theory comes from the economics literature — you might call it the “home court advantage” theory but technically it is based on the “gravity model” that is used to analyze international trade patterns. The gravity model holds that geographical proximity is a strong predictor of trade patterns — the closer countries are to one another the stronger the force of “economic gravity” that pulls their economies together.
I see the home court advantage at work here within Washington State and it is widely observed that while the wine industry is global, wine consumption has a strong local bias. If this theory applies to the New York case, then it suggest that Europe is New York’s home court and that the pull of French gravity is especially strong. Given the many different languages that fill conversations on cosmopolitan New York City streets, this doesn’t seem like a crazy theory at all.
A quick analysis of the Morrell and Sherry-Lehmann websites reinforces my on-the-scene observations and adds more data since the warehouse selection is so much bigger than the Manhattan stores.
I found more Washington wines in the online stores, but I was still surprised by the relatively limited selection. And I was surprised as well that Washington and Oregon had about the same number of wines on the sales lists despite Washington’s vastly greater number of wineries and total production. Burgundy (1122 wines on the Sherry-Lehmann site) has many more wines than California (612), Oregon (31) or Washington (30).
The particular wines listed on the Sherry Lehmann site suggest that the distribution theory is part of the explanation. More high volume Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest wines and some famous name icons, but a thinner middle market selection. It looks to me like all three forces are at work here, making this a particularly complex and difficult situation.
Readers: use the comments section below to provide your own observations and theories.