Scratching the Surface of Wine in America

wineamericaI was busy this winter speaking at national and regional wine industry gatherings here in the United States: the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento (the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry meeting) and smaller but equally ambitious wine business meetings in Colorado, Idaho, and Washington State.

It’s been inspiring to meet so many hard-working and talented wine people and to talk with them about their challenges and achievements. I’d like to give a sense of what I learned in today’s column but — fair warning — I only have room here to scratch the surface of what I saw and heard and the places I’ve been.

As I said in my “State of the Industry” presentation at the Unified Symposium, wine is bustin’ out all over America. More consumers drank more wine in 2017 from more producers in more places than ever before.  The United States is well on the way to fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s (and Phillip Wagner‘s) dream of a widespread wine-making and wine drinking nation.

American Wine By the Numbers

Wine America commissioned a study by John Dunham & Associates of the American wine industry’s economic impact  and the 2017 numbers are impressive (here is a pdf summary of the study). The total economic impact of American wine was more $219 billion, when both direct and indirect effects were included, and spread across all 50 states.  Follow this link  if you want to see the numbers for particular sectors or regions.

Wine Business Monthly‘s February 2018 issue surveyed the American wine scene and found nearly 10,000 wineries in the U.S. today (the exact number was 9,654), of which 7,751 were brick-and-mortar bonded wineries and 1903 were “virtual” wineries. California (1241) and Oregon (301) account for most of the virtual wineries. Nearly 40% of Oregon wineries are virtual — brands based upon wine produced under contract by others or sometimes purchased on the bulk wine market.

California makes the most wine, of course, and has the most bonded wineries (3,151) followed by Washington (713), Oregon (473), and New York (365). California was both the most wineries and the largest ones. It is no wonder that the California section of your local shop’s wine wall is so large.

My speaking schedule took me to Washington, Colorado, and Idaho this year. Colorado is 12th on the winery league table (behind Missouri and ahead of Illinois), with 121 bonded and 6 virtual wineries. Idaho sits in 28th place with 47 bonded and 5 virtual wineries. Although the scale is obviously smaller in regions like these, compared with California, that doesn’t mean that potential quality and ambition are any less.

Grappling with Challenges

Sue and I were much impressed by the energy and intensity we saw in the winemakers we met as they grappled with their particular challenges and opportunities. At the Unified Symposium in Sacramento, for example, special seminars inspired by last year’s wildfires were organized around emergency planning, preparedness, and response.

The Colorado program included applied research on Phylloxera, which has now come to parts of the state, and necessary practices to deal with it more effectively and to slow its spread. Paul Hobbs presented a seminar and growing and making Malbec, so put Colorado Malbec on your radar.

Idaho has its own vineyard problems — a killer freeze last year wiped out a lot of the production capacity. Growers are working together to rethink what should be grown, where, and how, treating the problem as an opportunity to improve. I was especially impressed by one conference session that I was not allowed to attend. Each year the Idaho winemakers gather in private to taste and frankly evaluate each other’s wines. The idea is everyone needs to improve quality if the regional industry’s reputation is to grow. No outsiders allowed in these pointed discussions.

To Tip or Not to Tip?

Sometimes regional meetings rely upon outside consultants for imported expertise, but often the biggest gains come from internal discussions like this. I sat in on one session at the Washington Winegrowers meetings, for example, where participants shared their experiences running tasting rooms. With direct-to-consumer sales more important than ever, tasting rooms need to adopt the best practices — but what does that mean in highly localized wine markets? It was fascinating to hear what worked and didn’t and why.

One issue that I did not expect to come up in the tasting room discussion was tipping. Tipping is for restaurants and cruise ships, not for wineries, or so I thought. But once you are using computer-based credit card payment systems, it is a simple task to insert a tip option ranging from zero to ten percent to twenty to whatever you like. Some winery owners were dead set against tipping — we pay our tasting room staff a good wage, no need to tip them to do their jobs. Others reported that customers brought the subject up, asking how they could tip — they appreciated the personal service that much.

One winery owner, who seemed to enjoy stirring things up, said he gave visitors who wanted to tip three options: 10%, 20%, and 200%. That 200% tip possibility usually generated an interesting conversation, he said, and that’s just what he had in mind.

There is a big world of American wine out there beyond California. If you haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities, consider this a wake-up call. The world of local American wineries is not as ubiquitous as craft breweries, which seem to lurk around every corner, but they are widespread and deserve your attention and support.


This is the first of a short series of columns on the changing face of wine in America. Come back next week to learn the surprising story of the world’s largest winery club and the innovative winery project behind it.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for the links, Mike. On the topic of virtual wineries, how sustainable is that model when comparing high-quality vs. low-quality? Cameron Hughes, for example, sourced excess high-quality juice and then ran into supplier problems. Eventually declaring bankruptcy and selling itself to pay off its bank debt. Is a low-quality virtual winery less at risk regarding supplier disruptions?

    • There are certainly ways to make the virtual winery model (which is sometimes called the capital-lite model) work. But it is a riskier proposition for super-premium wines, as you suggest, and some of the M&A activity of recent years has been designed to link high-end brands with the vineyards they need for sustained growth.

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