Washington Wines & Wineries

Seattle wine writer Paul Gregutt’s new book Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide has just been published by the University of California Press. It is the kind of wine book that brings immediate pleasure and promises to be a useful companion in the future. I especially appreciate Gregutt’s sense of history. Knowing history always helps me make better sense of what I see today.

The book is organized into three sections. The first provides background in the form of brief surveys of the history of wine in Washington, the AVAs, the grape varieties and the top ten vineyards. The chapter on grapes explains where and how each varietal fits into the Washington wine puzzle and a brief list of “best bottles.” This is just about only place in the book where Gregutt (hereafter PG) ranks individual wines, which is fine with me. There are lots of places to go for wine ratings and rankings (including PG’s own blog at http://paulgregutt.com/) and a book is actually the wrong place to do this because of the dynamic nature of the wine market and the less-than-dynamic time frame of book publication. Lots of interesting and useful information is presented here in a lively style.

The second section provides usefully detailed descriptions of more than 100 Washington wineries (out of the 500+ wineries currently producing). An innovation here is the use of a 100-point scale to rate the wineries (not individual wines). PG rates each producer according to style (30 points), consistency (30 points), value (30 points) and its contribution to the development and improvement of the Washington wine industry (10 points). Everything about this rating system is subjective, of course, but I find it interesting nonetheless (although I must admit that my first reaction was not so favorable — Karen Wade encouraged me to take a second look at it and I am glad I did). Consistency and value in particular are two factors that are important to wine buyers but that do not always show up clearly in the rankings of individual wines. A reputation for consistency and value is a good thing.

The top winery in Washington? Quilceda Creek, with its perfect 100 Robert Parker point Cabernet Sauvignon, also gets a perfect PG score (30/30/30/10). Leonetti ranks second with 98 points (30/28/30/10). Columbia Crest, a volume producer, earns a surprisingly high 92 points (26/26/30/10), reflecting its good value and all that it (and Chateau Ste Michelle) have done to promote Washington wines in general.The part of the book that is most directly relevant to this blog comes at the end, when PG considers the future of Washington wine, asking some pointed questions to industry leaders including Ted Baseler of Chateau Ste Michelle, Bob Betz, Tom Hedges, Allen Shoup and David Lake. One of the questions is, how well do Washington wines compete in the global marketplace (and how can they do better)? Here is summary of some of the responses:

1. Although Washington wines are currently exported to 40 foreign countries, the export market is not yet very significant. Most Washington wine is sold domestically.

2. Profit margins on exports are lower than on domestic sales, so at this point exports are done either for personality satisfaction (the ego factor) or as part of a long term market development strategy. There are good economic reasons to privilege domestic over foreign sales now, although that could change in the future as competition for the U.S. market intensifies.

3. It is difficult to sell Washington wines abroad because no one really knows that they are. Are they like California wines (in which case, why not just buy California wines and be done with it)? David Lake says that he tells people that Washington wines are as different from those from California as New Zealand wines are from Australian products. I think that comparison is both valid and persuasive, but …

4) Foreign consumers generally don’t know when they are buying a Washington wine because the bottle doesn’t say Washington except in fine print on the back. New Zealand wines, on the other hand, typically say New Zealand clearly on the front label. New Zealand wines systematically reinforce a regional identity; Washington wines do not.

The source of Washington wines is usually listed by AVA: Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and so forth. You and I might know that all these wines come from Washignton, but a British supermarket customer or Japanese restaurant patron probably doesn’t. The AVA system that individual wineries use to differentiate their products from others in Washignton makes it more difficult for Washington wines in general to develop a clear identity of their own — the sort of identity that’s needed for successful global market penetration.

5) New Zealand’s success in the global wine market is clearly on everyone’s mind. New Zealand’s growth was made possible by the exceptional quality of one wine: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. That wine opened doors around the world for all New Zealand wines. That’s what we need, several of the experts say, we need one distinctive Washington wine that we can promote aggressively. That signature wine will carry the rest of the industry into the global market.

Yes, yes, but which wine? Jancis Robinson famous said that Washington Merlot is as good as it gets for Merlot, but so what? She didn’t seem to think that you could build a global market identity on the back of merely Merlot. (She doesn’t have much that is good to say about Chardonnay, either. Don’t get her started.)

6) So what wine will it be? Winemakers who have already invested a lot in establishing an identity for their products are unlikely to want to shift attention to a different varietal, AVA or designation in order to help establish an Washignton State Wine brand that is of uncertain value to them. Hard to imagine that a consensus will be easily reached.

So maybe it will be left to the market to decide. I think that’s how it actually happened in New Zealand.

It would be ironic if Washington’s special wine turned out to be Riesling, the varietal on which the industry was built in the 1970s and one that is experiencing a market renaissance today (Riesling is Jancis Robinson’s favorite wine, I think). Washington is the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines, but they don’t get much respect here compared with red wines, even though some of them are very good. (Hmmm. The Germans who make great Riesling prefer to drink red wines, too.)

Maybe Riesling is it and we just haven’t realized it. It would be ironic if Washington winemakers and consumers were the last to know what the region’s signature wine really is!

Internet Wine Scams

The internet has done a lot for the global wine industry. It promotes the diffusion of useful marketing and research information, facilitates wine tourism, promotes professional collaboration, and helps individual winemakers and regional groups to establish distinct market identities. Many winemakers and winesellers rely upon internet contacts for a good proportion of their sales. If you are reading this blog entry, chances are that you get a lot of your wine information over the internet, too. It’s a good thing, for the most part.

But not everything about the internet is good for winemakers. Do you remember the old New Yorker cartoon with the punchline “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog?” On the internet we are who and what we pretend to be. Obviously wine marketers can use this fact to tailor the imagine of their wines and winemakers. Nothing surprising there. But, as I have recently learned, there are some predators out there who use the internet to try to take advantage of wine producers.

Karen Wade, who owns the Fielding Hills winery with her husband Mike, recently sent me an email that she received from someone posing as a wine buyer, writing under the subject heading, “I Need Wine for my Birthday Party.”

Hello,
My name is Robert Peter, an American .
I live and work here in Seoul, South Korea.
Actually when I was around last year for chistmas holiday, I got a a bottle of of one of your wines from a friend and i love the taste .since then , I been planning on getting your wines for my birthday party …coming up third week of novemebr here in Seoul, South Korea.
I will be making my payment via my American based credit card .
You are not shipping the wines ….The wines will be picked up at your winery by a licensed shipping agency .This shipping agency have all the appropriate exportation documents and permits .
I got your contact thru your website and I want to know if you will be able to supply me some cases of wines for my upcoming birthday .
Concerning the shipping of the wines , I will refer you to a shipping company that will come for the pick up of the wines in your winery once I have made my payment .
Kindly get back to me so that I can make my orders .
Thanks.
Robert .

Karen writes that

Mike and I receive almost weekly, very official emails from places in Asia wanting to buy wine. They always offer to pay by American credit card and promise to have the wine picked up by their shipper. I answered once and told them to fax me the credit card info and order and never heard anything back.

I guess this indicates that the sort of people responsible for those bogus Nigerian email scams have now become more specialized, targeting wine producers. I wonder if anyone has fallen for this? Have any other winemakers received these emails, or are the Wades just lucky? Do other businesses received specialized scams like this?

On a related note, Mike and Karen Wade received good news this week in the 2008 edition of Tom Stevenson’s Wine Report, one of the best annual guides to global wine. Paul Gregutt, the Pacific Northwest contributor to this volume, rated their winery as the number one “new and up-and-coming producer” in the region. He also listed the 2004 Fielding Hills Cabernet Sauvignon as number four on his list of the ten “greatest quality” wines. That’s high praise for Fielding Hills.

Paul Gregutt has a new book out about Washington wines and wineries. I’ll be posting a review of it later this week.