Washington and Oregon Wines in London

There is a special tasting of Washington and Oregon wines in London today, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at 12 Carlton House Terrace. More than 190 wines from 40 Pacific Northwest wineries are being sampled. Marty Clubb of L’Ecole 41 in Walla Walla is leading an educational seminar about the Washington wines and Howard Rossback of Firesteed is doing the same for the Oregon products. The event is funded in part by a $200,000 federal trade grant. I believe it is the largest organized effort (so far) by Northwest winemakers to break into the European markets. It will be interesting to see if this seedling can grow to bear fruit.

Washington and Oregon are important winemaking regions, of course, but their reputations and sales are concentrated in the United States. Although Oregon Pinot Noirs are always included in the discussion when people anywhere talk or write about new world Pinots, the fact is that not much of it is sold abroad. Oregon wine sales in the UK and France were just over 2000 cases in 2006, for example, out of total production of 1.6 million cases. The word may be out around the world about Oregon wines, but wine distribution and sales haven’t followed — yet.

I don’t have figures for Washington wines, but I suspect that the situation is more or less the same. Washington makes excellent wines (better than Oregon wines, if you judge by the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate ratings, where several Washington wines receive 95+ points), but so far Washington doesn’t seem to have that one distinctive wine that could establish an international reputation. The state is too varied, I think, in terms of climate and geography for that to happen. Washington is Riesling country, judging by volume of production, but it hasn’t yet established an international reputation with this wine (although it is trying to do so with the Riesling Rendezvous conference). A variety of reds do well here, including both the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, but no signature style of wine has emerged as the champion. Marty Clubb is telling the people in London that Washington has the ideal climate for wine (that’s the official Washington wine theme), which may be true but doesn’t really define the product for confused international buyers.

Washington does have one advantage over Oregon in the export market: distribution muscle. The Washington wine industry features a few very large players that have the financial clout to potentially open up foreign distribution channels. Money is necessary; it isn’t easy to establish a brand abroad in this crowded market and margins on exports are necessarily lower than for domestic sales, at least at the beginning. I have read that export sales by small scale winemakers are “vanity” projects and there may be some truth to this. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, however.

The Chateau Ste Michelle family of wines have penetrated some European markets. I was surprised to discover a large display of CSM wines in an upscale supermarket next to the train station in Riga, Latvia, for example. I haven’t been able to find out how the wines got there yet — my guess is that CSM’s deal to distribute Antinori wines in the U.S. may be reciprocated by Antinori in Europe but I don’t really know. Other Washington wines including Columbia, Covey Run and Hogue are part of the Constellation Brands portfolio, which may aid in their international distribution, too.

The London tasting isn’t the first effort to get Northwest wines attention in the UK. I remember being in London in about 1990 and walking into Fortnum and Mason only to be shanghaied by an excited clerk who was directing anyone she could to a lonely wine tasting display where they were sampling wines from Hogue Cellars of Yakima. Needless to say, no one had any idea where Yakima was located, but they were amazed that such a unlikely place could produce good wine. Today’s London event is a much larger project than that Fortnum display, but the goal is much the same, to make friends, establish relationships, and get our foot in the door.

I hope the London tasting goes well. Many of the wineries are apparently looking for UK distribution, which makes sense. The UK is the most important wine market in the world. It is a good market to sell wine and to establish a worldwide reputation. A disproportionate number of the world’s leading wine writers and experts are based in London, including Jancis Robinson, Oz Clark, Michael Broadbent and Steven Spurrier. A good word by any of these celebrity wine critics would encourage wine enthusiasts in the UK and around the world to give Northwest wines a try. But the real prize would be a distribution deal with Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which dominate supermarket sales, or one of the big high street wine store chains, since you can’t try wines you can’t buy.

One reason this is a good time to try to break into the UK and European markets is that the exchange rates favor U.S. exports. The dollar fell dramatically in 2007 against both the Pound and the Euro, making U.S. wines relatively less expensive. This will help, but it will still be difficult to get British wine drinkers to think beyond Gallo and one end of the market and Napa Valley at the other.

It’s tough to break into foreign wine markets. Ernie Hunter famously did it the DIY way — he brought his wines to London and entered them in the Sunday Times wine festival, where they won the people’s choice award. Ernie was from New Zealand and his surprise victory paved the road for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s dramatic rise in the world of wine. Washington and Oregon are taking a direct and organized approach, with tastings and seminars. Every case is different. My next post will tell an unlikely story of how Washington wines first came to Sweden.

Costco and Global Wine

Costco is the largest wine retailer in the United States and I think it is worth thinking about the Costco model and what it has to say about the globalization of wine.

Costco’s approach to selling wine is different from most other U.S. retailers, such as supermarket chains. Most supermarkets offer a surprisingly large selection of wine. The Metropolitan Market (an upscale grocery store in my neighborhood) has more than 1500 different wines on its shelves. The Tacoma Boys farm store down the road has more than 3300 different wines – an incredible selection. A typical Costco store has a rolling inventory of only about 100-120 wines at any given time. Selection is obviously much narrower at Costco, so value and quantity sales are the key. If you’ve shopped for wine at Costco, you already know that you can spend as little as about $5 for a bottle of wine and as much as … well, as much as you want, really. I have seen Dom Pérignon on the Costco rack as well as a Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as few years ago. If you go to the website you can even purchase Bordeaux futures!

One way that Costco reflects wine globalization is obvious: they bring global wines to the American market by offering products from France, Italy, Spain, Chile, South Africa, Germany, Portugal, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (those are the countries that I can remember from my last visit – I haven’t tried to make a complete accounting).

Costco distributes the wines of the world to America and America apparently snaps them up. A good example is the red wine shown above, a 2006 Kirkland Signature Central Otago (New Zealand) Pinot Noir that I found on my most recent Costco expedition. Pinot Noir is hot these days (the Sideways fad continues) and Central Otago Pinots have developed something of a cult following. So it is very interesting to find this wine in a warehouse store, where volume sales are key.

The Kirkland Signature label first appeared in 2003. The wines are relatively small lots (around 2000 cases each — large for many wineries but small for Costco — according to a 2006 Costco report) specially created by chosen winemakers. The wines are scattered out among the warehouse stores and when they are gone they’re gone. New wine releases are staggered throughout the year so that serious (or curious) buyers have reason to check back frequently to see what’s new.

I found an Oregon Pinot Noir a few years ago and went to the trouble of tracking down the maker. This isn’t always necessary any more — some Kirkland Signature wines, like the Marquis-Phillips made Shiraz we had on Monday, proudly list the winemakers. The Oregon Pinot’s maker was the same company responsible for the A-to-Z brand. A-to-Z are negociants who own no vineyards. Negociants typically purchase wine from other makers and blend, age and market it. A-to-Z is know as a great value brand and so a good potential Costco supplier. Interestingly, the Costco Pinot had the same price as the A-to-Z Pinot in my local store.

Now we can begin to appreciate why Costco is so successful as a wine retailer. Their list of wines is not large compared to other retailers, but they provide a rolling selection of pretty interesting and sometimes unexpected wines (at good prices, but that goes without saying). Costco buyers suspect that it must be a good value to get on the Costco shelves and know that any particular wine might not still be there next week or next month. Better run back and buy more now if you want it. So people keep coming back.

There is another aspect to Costco’s wine story that interests me and that is its house brand, Kirkland Signature wine. Kirkland Signature wines reflect the complex nature of wine globalization in ways that you might not suspect.

There are basically three models for wine marketing in the world today that correspond to the three largest import markets for wine: the U.S., Germany and Great Britain.

The U.S. model is built around brands owned by wine companies. Winemakers big and small seek to establish a brand or reputation that will help them sell their wines to consumers who need a trustworthy indicator of value and/or quality. Building reputation is complex and brands are part of the process, but not the whole story, of course. Americans typically look to brands for quality/value information when shopping in general and so it is natural that wine brands are so important here. Because there are lots of market segments for wine and many competing brands within each segment, American retailers stock a lot of wine.

Then there is the German model, which is all about low prices. The average “bottle” of German wine is sold in a discount store, often with a house brand name, and costs about a Euro per liter. I put “bottle” in quotes because sometimes it comes in a juice-box type container. Decent quality for less is what the German market seeks and the discount chain’s reputation for value seals the deal.

Finally there is the British model. Britain is by most accounts the most important wine import market in the world and the key players there are the supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Because this market is so important to wine exporters, you can find wine from every nook and cranny of the global market in British stores. But because this huge selection can be confusing to consumers (especially French wines) and discourage them from making a purchase, the stores themselves (not the wine producers) have launched their own brands, like the Tesco’s Finest Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon or, for example. Or the Sainsbury’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc shown here, which offer a limited range of global wines under the store’s own label. The Tesco brand gives consumer confidence to try an unfamiliar foreign wine (a Central Otago Pinot?) that they might otherwise avoid. Tesco and Sainsbury’s don’t make the wine, of course. They contract with local winemakers to supply the product. The stores add value to the bottle by lending it their reputation through the store brand label. And, of course, they use their efficient distribution system to get the bottles into consumer shopping baskets.

Now a quick field guide to globalization and the U.S. wine market. You can find the American wine marketing system in your local supermarket: dozens of different brand-name wines in all the major price segments.

You can find the German wine marketing system at Trader Joe’s, where people who would never spend three dollars for a bottle of wine at Albertsons (how could it be any good?) confidently pay as little as two bucks for a bottle of Charles Shaw (how could it be bad?).

I think that Costco’s innovation is to bring the British wine market system to the United States. Costco’s wine aisle reminds me of Tesco’s in Britain. And the Kirkland Signature line reminds me of Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s house brands. Even the labels bear a family resemblance if you compare the Costco Marlborough Sauvignon shown here with the similar Sainsbury’s wine above. (Interestingly, they are both priced at about $9 per bottle.)

Bottom wine. Costco is a success in the wine business because it sells global wines to Americans using the British wine market system. That’s globalization!