When Will Wines from Asia Hit U.S. Shelves? (Hint: They’re Already Here!)

chinasaleMost people are surprised when I talk about the growing wine industry in Asia. In working on my next book  Around the World in Eighty Wines I have sampled interesting wines from China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and even Bali. And I know there are more out there waiting to be discovered.

Why are people so surprised? Stereotypes are part of the answer — wine isn’t part of the way that we usually think of these countries. But availability is also important. We understand that wine is made in far-away New Zealand because we see it on store shelves. When will Asia wine arrive in the U.S. market?

Flying Below the Radar?

Asian wines are a little more visible in Europe and the U.K. Reports from Paris suggest that Chinese wines can be found in many places (perhaps reflecting in some way the boom in Chinese investment in Bordeaux) and Berry Bros. & Rudd, the London wine seller, proudly advertises its commitment to Chinese wine offerings. Sue and I enjoyed some lovely Thai wines from Monsoon Valley on our last visit there to London, too.

Asia wines are pretty much flying below the radar in the U.S., but they are here if you know where to look. I found a nice Korean raspberry wine at one local Asian market, for example, and a Chinese wine — a Changyu Cabernet — at another. A brand of Chinese wines crafted specifically for the U.S. market appeared a few years ago and made a bit of a splash, but now Dragon’s Hollow wines seem to be hard to find.

Not Sherlock Holmes
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You won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find wines from India if Rajeev Samant has his way. Samant is founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards and his wines are not just here, but are getting a good deal of attention. They were featured in the May 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example. The Sula Dindori Reserve Shiraz was named an Editors’ Choice and the Sula Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz all received ‘Best Buy’ recommendations.

Wine was probably  not high on priorities when Samant was growing up in Mumbai, but things changed when he came to the United States to attend Stanford University and work for a while in Silicon Valley. Visits to Napa Valley and wineries like Robert Mondavi left their mark.

Coming home to India, Samant accepted the challenge of reviving a family farm near Nashik. He cast about for crops that would provide higher margins and wondered if wine grapes might thrive. With help from a California flying winemaker, he learned tropical viticulture and made the necessary winery investments.

The rest, as they say, is history, but that phrase doesn’t begin to capture the challenges that Samant has faced and overcome over the last 20 years. Sula is today India’s largest winery, with capacity to both service the growing India domestic market and also make targeted export sales.

The Mondavi of Mumbai

The Stanford University alumni magazine published an article about Samant a few years ago, calling him the “Mondavi of Mumbai,” a reference to Robert Mondavi, who was also a Stanford graduate.  It was a bit of journalistic hyperbole then, but the title is not without merit today.tasting1

Samant seems to have followed the Mondavi blueprint in many ways, both in breaking new ground in wine production and promoting his products and the region through wine tourism. The Sula Vineyard winery includes attractive hospitality facilities and hosts concerts and festivals, too.

The operation is world class. Or at least that’s what the experts at The Drinks Business believe — they presented Sula with the prize for  Best Contribution to Wine and Spirits Tourism at their London awards ceremony in May.

Once the Novelty Wears Off …

The thing about wines from unexpected places is this. People will try them once just for the fun of it, but the quality and value have to be there to earn a repeat sale. Sue and I have had an opportunity to taste the Sula lineup and we think the wines pass the test.

No one comes to this URL looking for tasting notes or point scores, so I won’t give any, but the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly noteworthy. It managed to walk a fine line. It was made in an international style — clean, crisp, balanced — but it had its own character, with a rather nice finish that wasn’t Marlborough or Napa or anywhere except Nashik. Not a me-too wine, if you know what I mean, and therefore a good addition to the wine shelf.

Sula isn’t the first wine from Asia to arrive on these shores and I expect we will see more and more of them now, especially if (as I worried in a previous column) the recent UK Brexit vote makes London a less desirable wine market and more of these wines are directed our way. If that’s what happens, I guess London’s loss is our gain.

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This brief video does a good job telling the Sula story. Watch it — I think you will be surprised!

Alentejo Wine in Transition: History and Changing Times in Portugal’s “Lodi”

seloSue and I recently returned from historic Évora, Portugal where I am spoke at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. We spent about a week in the Alentejo wine region and learned a lot. This is the first of a short series of columns loosely organized around the theme of the disruptive intersection of old and new which I have found in many corners of the wine world, but none more clearly than Alentejo.

Portugal’s Lodi

The map gives you an idea of Alentejo’s location. Évora is about an hour east of Lisbon and give hours south of the Douro Valley. Portuguese leaders once thought that this region would be Europe’s grainery (more Kansas than Lodi, I suppose), but the landscape we saw was more pastures dotted with cork trees and vineyards, some of which are quite large by Portuguese standards.lisboa-alentejo

I think of Alentejo as the Portugal’s Lodi for several reasons. The first is the summer heat, which reaches up to 40 or 45 degrees Centigrade (100 to 110 Fahrenheit) or even higher in July. Difficult to grow high quality wine grapes in such baking heat. But, as markets shift, both regions feel the need to increase quality and so producers are pushing hard. And both regions are implementing important sustainability initiatives that are part of their new identities.

They both produce quite a lot of wine, too. Alentejo accounts for more than 40 percent of the wine consumed in Portugal. But the market is changing and the region must adjust and evolve. The domestic market has not fully recovered from the global financial crisis and price pressure is extreme, especially in the lower price tiers. At the same time, the traditional export markets — especially former Portuguese colonies Angola (#1 on the export list) and Brazil — are struggling.

Drawing Strength from the Old and the New

Alentejo is drawing strength from its past in this transition and from new ideas and initiatives, too. The sense of history is never far below the surface here. Évora is a Unesco World Heritage site, for example, with Roman ruins around every corner. The Romans made wine in this region and the big clay pots they employed are inspiring today’s winemakers (watch for a future column on this).

Portugal was once part of the Arab world (“Portugal,” we were told, means “orange” in Arabic and this was not hard to believe with orange trees everywhere). The name Alentejo itself reflects this history. Alentejo comes from Al Entejo (just as mathematic’s algebra was originally al gebra).

Old practices and a wealth of indigenous grape varieties are more than living history — they form building blocks, but bold initiative is needed for glue. The next three columns will explore this dynamic.

First I will introduce you to Adega de Borba, a big cooperative winery that is moving decisively into the future. Then I will take you into the world of cork by visiting Amorim cork’s processing plant in Alentejo and its high tech labs and production facilities in the north. Finally, we will go back in time to the wines made in big clay pots when we meet with winemaker Domingos Soares Franco at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery.

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One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner that featured a group of men who sang the famous Cante Alentejano that is unique to this region. It was a moving experience to hear the singing that turned to pure joy when we learned that the singers were winegrowers — members of the Vidigueira  cooperative. And to top it off, we were drinking their excellent wines. What an experience!

What Next for U.S. Wine? Unified Symposium’s “State of the Industry”

whatnextSue and I are in Sacramento for the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show and meetings that start today and run through Thursday. This is the Western Hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering and there is a lot going on this year, both on the trade show floor and in the ambitious seminar program.

I will be moderating the “State of the Industry” panel on Wednesday and also speaking about the global wine market “big picture.” Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers will explain what’s happening in the vineyards (Allied’s most recent newsletter suggests Nat will have some dramatic statistics to reveal), Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage will examine bulk wine market dynamics and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates will break down the U.S wine market and name his Winery of the Year.

It will be a great session. There’s a lot happening in U.S. wine and this may be the best place to go to learn about it.

Uncertain Prospects

The Economist cover shown here captures the essence of my part of the program. The global economy faces uncertain prospects as we enter 2016. Where will economic growth come from in 2016? I will examine the usual suspects and come up with a surprising answer.

I will also highlight four global  trends that I think will be important for the U.S. wine industry  in 2016. (1) The slowdown in the Chinese economy, which is likely to have significant direct and especially indirect effects. (2) The possible renaissance of the Argentina wine export machine (I have written about this in my last two columns on The Wine Economist).

(3) The “Euro-Doillar Twist” that is taking place as U.S. interest rates rise slowly this year and European interest rates continue to move into negative territory. No one really knows how this will play out in terms of direct and indirect effects, which adds a major element of uncertainty to any economic forecast for 2016.

A Very Good Year?

Finally (4) I’ll talk briefly about the possibility of contagion as economic events in one part of the world cascade through the system. With some countries on the brink of crisis, it wouldn’t take much to set off a chain reaction.

I will conclude my very brief remarks by asking if 2016 will be a very good year for the U.S. wine industry? The answer? Maybe! (Which may come as an optimistic surprise after all the gloom and doom of my previous points.) There are definite positive prospects for U.S. wine this year, but lots of potential problems, too.

What next? Lots of uncertain possibilities. Get ready!

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A very good year? That calls for Sinatra. “I think of my life as vintage wine …”

Wines & Vines: A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity

The December 2014 issue of Wine & Vines is out and it features the usual mix of interesting and informative articles. This issue includes a preview of the sessions scheduled for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento at the end of January, a “Best of 2014” collection, a guide to building an urban winery and much, much more.

Great stuff — the wine industry is lucky to be served by top notch professional publications like Wines & Vines, Wine Business Monthly, Harpers Wine & Spirits, Beveragedaily.com,  Meininger’s Wine Business International, The Drinks Business and  other useful and informative publications.

Wines & Vines has for some time now included content from Practical Winery & Vineyard, which is edited by Don Neel. This month Don chose an article that I wrote for him last year to be featured in the combined publication. It is called “A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity: Think Global, Drink Local.”

The article is based on a presentation I made to a gathering of wine makers in Southern Oregon. Some of the remarks are aimed specifically at this under-the-radar region, where some great wines are being made, but I think many of the conclusions I draw are more general. I invite you to click on the link and read the column along with the other Wines & Vines articles.

Sababay Wines of Bali: New Latitudes, New Flavors, New Frontiers

BottlesThe Wine Economist’s chief Hanoi correspondent Ali Hoover recently visited Bali, Indonesia and volunteered to investigate the local wine sector, focusing on Sababay wine. Here is her report.

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A decade ago, one of my personal favorite wine celebrities, Jancis Robinson, wrote about a new breed of wine emerging on the market – New Latitude Wines. Joining existing wine region categories of Old World and New World, New Latitude’s name suggests it all: these alternate regions seek to break out from the +/- 30 to 50 degree latitude belt considered the bookends of quality viticulture, due in part to climate change, but also enabled through increasing human understanding of how and when vines grow and advancements in refrigeration and irrigation techniques. Jancis ended her article with hesitation, though, admitting “I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude Wines will ever be seriously good, but then that’s what was said about New World Wines not that long ago.”

Since then, wine has begun to pour into the international market from a myriad of unexpected places. I certainly didn’t think Kenya, Azerbaijan, or Thailand were producing wine, and apparently I’m not alone; the Wine Explorers estimates 80% of wine producing countries are poorly known to the general public.

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Among the surprisingly extensive list of non-traditional wine producing countries is equatorial Indonesia, and Bali in particular. After my visit to Bali last month, I’m happy to report it deserves the overuse of the word “paradise” in reference. Despite a confluence of tourists and a disproportionate amount of surfer types, Bali has preserved much of its cultural essence. The crowd favorite ‘homestay’ accommodation looks more like a new-purposed temple, replete with impressive stonework, koi ponds covered in lotus flowers, and breakfast served on sunny patios in the morning. Crystal blue water, lush green vegetation, infamous coffee shops, yoga retreats, and small boutiques have created a getaway nothing short of idyllic. The abundance of fresh fish and produce, coupled with the laid-back attitude and stunning views lends itself all to easily to a crisp glass of wine, but producing local wine posed its own difficult set of challenges.

The Sababay Project

At a mere -8 degrees latitude, low-quality grapes considered unfit for consumption flood the Balinese market, destined for the omnipresent sidewalk religious offering (pictured below). But it turns out climate wasn’t the biggest barrier to quality wine – education in farming sustainability and viticulture standards was. Seeking to use these advances in modern technology to contribute to their native homeland, Evy Gozali and her mother founded Sababay Winery and the Asteroid Vineyards Partnership. In exchange for agricultural & technical support, Northern Balinese grape farmers commit their yields exclusively to Sababay—the 175 farmers currently producing have experienced yield increases of up to 50% in the first year alone with the new viticulture practices, and some have even reported a ten-fold annual profit increase since engaging in the partnership.

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What struck me most was Sababay’s strong Indonesian identity, a true achievement in an industry with a constant tug of war between terroir and global appeal. Beyond their tangible contributions to local agriculture, Sababay produces wine to match the cultural preferences and local flavors. Marketing wine to the largest Muslim country by population in the world is no small feat, but the demand is growing, and Sababay provides an alternative to these new consumers who’re looking for a twist-top wine that tastes good with dinner. The resulting wines, designed to be poured young, are sweet, with low alcohol content, and are a perfect pair for the complex, spicy flavors of Indonesian dishes.

Think Global, Act Local

Sababay does not currently export its wines – they’re 100% focused on local consumers. In keeping with advancements in technology and understanding, they have machinery imported from all over the world and a French winemaker to make the magic happen, but in all other facets of their operation they maximize Indonesian involvement in their leadership, staff, production, branding, and promotion. Sababay’s focus is a wine for the people, as opposed to an award winning wine – though they’ve incidentally done that as well! Their sparkling Moscato d’Bali (my personal favorite) recently won the silver award at the WSA Wine Challenge 2014 in Singapore.

As wine expands its boundaries, both in terms of production and consumption, I believe local identity and alternative branding will play a critical role in New Latitude’s potential success. There are untapped demographics with unique preferences and flavors, and New Latitude presents an opportunity to break out not only from geographic constraints, but traditional flavor profiles as well. In our increasingly global world, it seems the time is right to engage these regions and step outside our delimiting 30/50. Rather than expecting New Latitude to produce “seriously good” wines by our preexisting standards, I think we ought to encourage them to create “seriously relevant and unique” wines that appeal to emerging demographics and engage local consumers. So keep your eye out for these intriguing New Latitude wines on your next vacation, it’s bound to shake up your wine experience and add an extra dimension to your cultural experience.

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Update: All of the Sababay wines entered in the Chine Wine & Spirits Awards competition have received medals.  The Sababay Pink Blossom received a double gold! Congratulations to Sababay on this international recognition. To see the details click on the awards link and search for Sababay.

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Thanks to Ali for her report. Here is a photo of Ali (red blouse) and the Sababay team.

I’m also impressed by the Sababay wines and also by the values they embody. Here is the winery’s mission statement (taken from the website):

Our mission is to elaborate local products of international standard that are accessible to all to enjoy and to give back to the land and to the local community.

  • Developing a diversified and performing agriculture in Indonesia with reduced impact on the land.

  • Recycling solid and liquid wastes at every steps of the production.

  • Social responsibility in the local community by creating jobs.

  • Constant training of the work force.

  • Harmonious relationship with trading partners and consumers.

 

Thanksgiving: American Wines for an American Celebration

Thanksgiving is the distinctively American holiday and we are happy to share the idea of a day of appreciation with other nations. A festive meal is generally part of the Turkey Day plan and so the question always comes up, what wines should we serve?

America: Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are many good choices depending upon the components of the meal, but we tend to lean towards American wines here at The Wine Economist office. And as Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s recent book American Wine reminds us, we do not need to limit our choices to wine from the “usual suspect” states and regions. While most of America’s wines are produced in California, most of America’s wineries (by a small majority) are in other states!

Wines & Vines reports that the United States boasted more than 7400 wineries in 2012 and of those about 3500 were located in California. The Californians made a vast majority of the wines measured in either value or volume, but there are active wineries in all of the states and so lots and lots of  “local wines” for anyone wanting to support the local industry.

Most of us have tasted wines from California, Washington and Oregon and while some wines are surely better than others, it is clear that the best are world class products. Perhaps fewer have sampled wines from further down the list: New York, BC, Virginia, Texas and so on. What is the state of the art of wine in these states and regions?

Well, I have tasted many New York, Ontario, B.C. and Michigan wines at Riesling Rendezvous and other tastings and I can attest to the high quality of the best wines. Idaho with 50 wineries doesn’t make this list, but we tasted many outstanding wines when we visited there in October.

An opportunity to sample the wines of Missouri, for example, or Oklahoma does not frequently present itself. Most of the wineries are small and rely mainly upon cellar door sales. Very few make it into the broader distribution channels. It is a rare treat to be able to taste them.

Great American Wine Festival

Which is why we motored down to Portland recently to join the fun at the Great American Wine Festival, an event organized to coincide with a wine tourism conference. I’ll paste a list of the wine regions represented and the specific wines that they poured at the bottom of this column.

The event presented a cross section of American wine ranging from regions with high name recognition  (Sonoma County, Santa Barbara) to others that would be better known to wine historians than to contemporary wine consumers (Maryland, for example, plus Virginia and Missouri).

How were the wines? Well, first a couple of caveats. No one is going to send a bad wine to an event like this even if some questionable wines are made. And I might have cheated a little bit — there were too many wines to taste them all so I let the winery recommendations from Jancis’ and Linda’s book steer me to particular labels in many cases.

Wine Thanksgiving

And as with any tasting, we liked some of the wines better than others. But I would say that overall the quality of the wines we tasted was impressive and they can make us proud of American wine. There was something to enjoy at each table and several of the wines really surprised and delighted us.

Choose well, Americans, and your local wine (or in any case an American wine) will be the highlight of your Thanksgiving table — something we all can give thanks for!

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Thanksgiving update: Our wines were

Appetizers: NV Domaine Ste Michelle Columbia Valley  Brut sparkling wine

Turkey dinner: 2006 Boedecker Cellars “Stewart” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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Here is a list of wines presented by the regional wine groups present at the Great American festival. Click here to see all of the participants, including individual winery representatives not on the list below. Thanks to the Great American Wine Festival for their hospitality and to everyone we met at the tasting. Keep up the great work!

COLORADO WINE

Boulder Creek: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Canyon Wind Cellars: 2012 Anemoi Apeilotes

Carlson Vineyards: 2012 Cougar Run Dry Gewürztraminer

Colorado West: 2012 Elks Gewürztraminer

Ruby Trust Cellars: 2011 Gunslinger

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COLUMBIA GORGE WINEGROWERS ASSOCIATION

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2010 Cabernet Reserve

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2012 Riesling

Jacob Williams Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Jacob Williams Winery: 2009 Syrah

Memaloose Winery: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Memaloose Winery: 2012 Trevitt’s White

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IDAHO WINE COMMISSION

Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier

Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red

Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah

Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry

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Livermore Valley Wine Country

Concannon Vineyard: 2010 Conservancy, Cabernet Sauvignon

Garre Vineyard & Winery: 2009 Primitivo

John Evan Cellars: 2010 The Paracelcian, Cabernet Sauvignon

Las Positas Vineyards: 2009 Casa de Vinas, Cabernet Sauvignon

Little Valley Winery: 2010 Tempranillo

Longevity Wines: 2012 Livermore Valley, Chardonnay

McGrail Vineyards & Winery: 2010 McGrail Reserve,Cabernet Sauvignon

Murrieta’s Well: 2012 The Whip, White Blend

Nottingham Cellars: 2011 Casa de Vinas, Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tamas Estates: 2010 Double Decker Red (blend)

Wente Family Estates: 2012 Morning Fog, Chardonnay

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 MARYLAND WINE

Basignani: 2007 Lorenzino Reserve, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Chardonnay

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Late Harvest Vidal

Boordy Vineyards: 2012 Dry Rose, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Verdot

Boordy Vineyards: 2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve, Eastern grown Cabernet Franc

Crow Vineyard and Winery: 2012 Barbera Rose, Barbera, Vidal

Elk Run: 2011 Syrah

Knob Hall Winery: 2012 Willow, Traminette, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc

Knob Hall Winery: 2011 White Oak, Chardonnay, Traminette, Vidal

Old Westminster Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard: 2010 EVOE!, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon

2011 Columbia Valley Viognier

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MISSOURI WINES

Hermanhoff Winery: 2010 Vidal

Les Bourgeois Winery: 2011 Premium Claret

Montelle Winery: 2012 Chambourcin

Montelle Winery: 2012 Dry Vignoles

St. James Winery: 2009 Norton

St. James Winery: 2012 State Park Seyval Blanc

Stone Hill Winery: 2012 Chardonel

Stone Hill Winery: 2011 Chambourcin

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OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION

Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo

Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton

Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese

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SANTA BARBARA COUNTY VINTNERS’ ASSOCIATION

Dragonette Cellars: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon

Dierberg/Star Lane: 2011 Dierberg Chardonnay

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: 2012 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Foxen Winery: 2012 Pinot Noir

Hitching Post: 2008 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Perfect Set Sta. Rita Hills

Lafond Winery: 2011 Pinot Noir AVA Sta. Rita Hills

Lucas & Lewellen: 2008 Cabernet Franc

Refugio Ranch Vineyards: 2010 Barbareno, Santa Ynez Valley – Syrah / Petite Sirah

Santa Barbara Winery: 2012 Chardonnay AVA SB County

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SOUTHERN OREGON WINERY ASSOCIATION

Agate Ridge Vineyard Ledger-David Cellars

Cliff Creek Cellars Plaisance Ranch

Deer Creek Winery RoxyAnn Winery

Del Rio Vineyards & Winery Serra Vineyard

Devitt Winery TesoAria Vineyard & Winery

EdenVale Winery Trium Vineyard & Winery

Kriselle Cellars

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VIRGINA WINE

Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve

Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage

Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier

Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red

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THE WINE ROAD NORTHERN SONOMA COUNTY

Alexander Valley Vineyards: – 2009 CYRUS

Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2010 Sin Zin

Silver Oak Cellars: 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonestreet Winery: 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay and Broken Road Chardonnay

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Twomey Cellars: 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

What’s Ahead for Idaho Wine?


Everyone we met in Idaho was keen on the potential of this sometimes overlooked wine region but at the same time aware that greater success — in terms of sales, recognition, and premium prices — is far from guaranteed.

Idaho, as I discussed in last week’s column, is unique in many respects, but it is typical of emerging American wine regions in that it is searching for the key that will unlock the latent potential of the people and the land.

Idaho Wine Surprises

One thing that surprised me was the vitality of the local wine market. Although Idaho has wine roots going back to the 1860s, the industry and the local wine culture was destroyed by Prohibition and was slow to recover afterward even by American standards.

Boise — the state capital and largest city — has changed enormously since I first visited over 30 years ago. The downtown now boasts both a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s — a sure sign that there is a critical mass of resident upscale consumers — and the wine department of the Boise Co-op supermarket grew so large that it took over a nearby building (it was crowded with interesting wines from Idaho and the world and buzzing with activity when we visited).

Pluses and Minuses

Boise impressed me as quite cosmopolitan. We had lunch on the Basque Block, for example, a cluster of Basque restaurants, social clubs and community center. Boise celebrates the cultural diversity that its Basque community brings and is working to strengthen ties (including wine connections) with the Old World. A group of local winemakers recently traveled to Spain to exchange ideas with wine people there, which seems like a great idea given the success some wineries are having with Tempranillo. A lot of pluses here.

And some minuses, too. Idaho wine is not well known outside the region and this is a disadvantage for those with national ambitions for their wines although obviously less of a factor if you define your market territory carefully to include the mountain states and parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Focused effort seems to be what is needed. Greg Koenig looks to be on the verge of success in China, for example, where buyers may not know where Idaho is but they understand what he has to offer — delicious Snake River Valley Riesling Ice Wine!

Building Brand Idaho

The economic structure of the Idaho industry is not ideal with big dog Ste Chapelle dwarfing the rest of the industry. It would be great if Ste Chapelle were to play a hegemonic role, working to grow markets and develop the supply chain for all of Idaho wine the way that Chateau Ste Michelle did for Washington wine in that industry’s early days. Or at least that’s what I was thinking  before my visit.

But these are different times and Idaho is a different place. Ste Chapelle is part of the dynamic Precept Wine group which has important wine assets in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and competes in a market environment where important new players (Gallo in Washington and Kendall Jackson in Oregon) have recently entered. Ste Chapelle must necessarily act as part of an ensemble, not as a solo performer, and while I think that great success is possible for the winery itself, it might not necessarily be able to pull the rest of Idaho wine along with it. The smaller wineries need to make their own paths and they seem to realize this fact.

I noticed that some of the new Ste Chapelle “soft” releases were designated “American Wine” even though they are for now at least made using only Idaho grapes. This will help the Ste Chapelle brand if and when they scale up production using fruit from other areas, but it doesn’t promote Brand Idaho. Not a criticism,  because I understand the business logic, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, however, it must be said that the Idaho wine industry would be much less vital without Precept’s key vineyard investments, which provide grapes for many smaller producers.

Opportunities

What will it take to bring Idaho wine to the next level? Well, I’m tempted to say that a big critical success would do it and high scores certainly help. The quality of the best wines makes strong ratings more than a dream (and in the case of a few wines, already a reality). But the market is very crowded right now and my winemaker friends tell me that even 90+ scores don’t always have the impact on prices and sales that they would like.

Wine tourism is another strategy that holds promise. The Sunnyslope area is a short drive from Boise and a wine trail is in place although it is hampered a bit by state restrictions on signage that limit the ability of individual wineries to direct buyers to their tasting rooms. Visitors from adjacent states represent an obvious marketing opportunity that effective wine tourism promotion could enhance.

New investment in vineyard assets would be welcomed hereabouts, as I wrote last week. But what will it take to get major vineyard investments that would fill the barrels and bottles that Idaho winemakers long to produce? Well, it’s complicated of course. From a strictly economic point of view the situation is that land must be worth more as a vineyard than at its next best alternative use — orchard, pasture or residential development — and this isn’t always the case.

Economic Impact

Idaho wines are often a bargain given their quality and tend to sell for much less than the Walla Walla wines that some makers compare them to. This helps sell the wines, but it also limits vineyard growth. Low wine prices dictate low grape prices, which means low vineyard land valuation.

 An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 projected that the number of Idaho wineries would continue to grow from 11 in 2002 to 38 in 2008 to 78 in 2015. The current number is around 50, much less than that estimate, and the number of vineyard acres has probably declined a bit from the 2008 level.  Is this just an understandable (given the Great Recession) pause in the upward trend or has the industry plateaued?

Too soon to tell, really, but I am cautiously optimistic. The land is there and the people, too, both thoughtful consumers and smart, hand-working producers.  I sense a new energy in America’s regional wine industries (this energy was captured in the book American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy). Idaho’s time will come.

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Here’s a list of some wineries from our visit. Sorry that we didn’t have time to visit others!

Bitner Vineyards

Huston Vineyards

Koenig Vineyards

Fujishin Family Wine Cellars

Hat Ranch Winery

Ste Chapelle Winery

Cinder Winery

Coiled Wines

Mouvance Winery

Telaya Wine Co.

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