Last week I wrote about the Yakima Valley AVA, which I described as Washington’s invisible vineyard. Why doesn’t it get more attention? I considered the “amenities gap” theory and concluded that it was at best a partial explanation. This week I dig a bit deeper into the issue.
Division of Labor Theory
The romantic idea of wine is a tiny vineyard farmed by a rugged individual who makes wine right there on the spot. We call this an estate winery and for better or worse the conventional wisdom holds that its it the model for quality wine. There are estate wineries in Yakima, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
In general the Washington State model is that there is a division of labor between farming the grapes and making the wine. The vineyards hereabouts are often large and supply grapes to many different wineries. The advantages of scale are tempered with the ability to give special treatment to particular blocks, rows, and sometimes specific grape vines within the larger vineyard.
Betz Family Winery and Brian Carter Cellars are both extreme and typical at the same time. Their wines earn the highest praise, but I don’t think they own any vineyards at all — they “outsource” the grape growing to others (although I think they are far from “laissez faire” in their relations with their winegrowers.) There is no indication that their wines suffer from the lack of “estate” status and probably benefit from the specialized system that has evolved.
Côte Bonneville is an instructive exception to the rule. Kerry Shiels makes the wines from grapes grown by her parents Hugh and Kathy at their iconic DuBrul Vineyard. But only a fraction of the grapes go into the estate wines — the majority are sold to a short list of wineries that are happy to feature the DuBrul Vineyard name on their labels.
Thurston Wolfe is another exceptional example. Wade Wolfe, who has inherited Walter Clore’s place as the valley’s leading viticultural authority, relies upon winemaking skill and an unchallenged knowledge of the region’s vineyards. He makes wines that have a cult-like following despite their lack of “estate” designation. An estate vineyard provides only a small proportion of the winery’s fruit — the rest is purchased.
Many of the most famous names in Yakima Valley such as Boushey and Red Willow are vineyards, not wineries, famous for the quality of their fruit and the dedication of their owners. But they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves. This model has been very successful and accounts in part for the growth of the Washington wine industry since it is possible to start a new winery, a capital intensive commitment, without also having to develop equally capital intensive vineyard properties. If wine is really made in the vineyards, then Washington wineries with access to these Yakima vineyards start the game with a real advantage.
But the division of labor has also contributed to Yakima’s invisibility. More attention is given to Walla Walla and Red Mountain (a Yakima AVA sub-appellation), for example, in part I think because the estate winery model is more typical in these areas, helping them to achieve a stronger reputation.
(One consequence of the division of labor is that many wineries blend across regions, which they could not do with an estate wine, drawing upon fruit from different vineyards, rather than focusing on expressing a particular terroir. Some critics argue that something is lost in this process, even though the wines may be very good or objectively even better than similar single-vineyard products. And because the vineyards may not all be within the Yakima AVA’s strict boundary, their wines often carry the broader Columbia Valley appellation.)
This division of labor was shaped early on by Chateau Ste Michelle’s decision to build its showcase winery in rainy Western Washington, in Woodinville just a short drive from Seattle, rather than in the more distant Yakima Valley where the grapes are grown It must have seemed like a peculiar choice back in the 1970s, but it has turned out to be a brilliant move in terms of the development of the wine industry. (Ste Michelle makes its white wines in Woodinville — the freshly pressed juice is rushed to the winery by tank truck — while the red wines are made in the wine country itself).
Because wine is an industry that seems to develop in clusters, one result of the Ste Michelle strategy has been to help create a vibrant wine production zone in the Seattle area, with literally hundreds of wineries, all far from the vineyards that supply them. Even wineries that have no production facilities in the Seattle area see the wisdom of setting up tasting room operations to facilitate direct sales to the critical mass of wine tourist consumers that the cluster has encouraged.
There are wine clusters in the Yakima Valley, too (especially around Prosser and on Red Mountain), but they are obviously smaller than on the west side of the Cascades and are less successful in generating critical mass. This is changing, however. A number of new investments are in the works including Ste Michelle’s decision to convert its Snoqualmie brand facility in Prosser into a home for its spectacularly successful 14 Hands wines. This might be the cornerstone investment that really starts things moving.
Is This a Problem?
Yakima is sort of a middle sister. Not as big as the Columbia Valley of which it is an integral part but huge compared to the sub-AVAs like Red Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills that live within it. Some producers choose the broader designation for their wines while others prefer to focus on the more local name. Yakima, which is key to both the big and little, is left to spend Saturday night alone at home. How sad.
But I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and so I am glad that the Yakima Valley wine folks are choosing to use the occasion of their 30th birthday to celebrate what and who they are, focusing on the wines, vineyards and the people who make and tend them.
It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that there would be no Washington wine industry without the Yakima Valley. The next time you pull the cork of a Washington State wine you might stop to consider the invisible vineyards that are responsible for the liquid in your glass.
Here’s my favorite example of the division of labor (and how not to do it!).