Washington Wine’s Identity Crisis

The title of the seminar was provocative: “In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style.” Moderator Bruce Schoenfeld of Travel + Leisure magazine wanted to talk about regional wine identity. What does “Washington wine” mean in the wine glass and to consumers in the marketplace?

Schoenfeld’s search for a definitive Washington wine identity was cleverly conceived (I have pasted the details of the seminar including the list of wines we tasted at the end of the post). We began by tasting wines from three regions with clear identities: Chablis, Ribera del Duero and Barolo.

An Identity Crisis?

These wine regions have strong brands, if you think of it from a business angle. Does Washington have a strong brand in this sense or does it suffer from an identity crisis that limits its market potential? Well, there are many ways to try to answer this question and Schoenfeld deftly guided the discussion to consider several of them.

Can Washington wine be defined by grape variety?  Well, not exactly. Over the years Washington has embraced and then abandoned a string of “defining wines” from the varietal standpoint. First it was Riesling, then Merlot, then on to Cabernet Sauvignon and now Syrah and soon maybe Malbec (the featured “emerging variety” at last year’s conference) or Grenache (highlighted this year).

The problem is that none of the wine identities have stuck, so Washington must seem a bit schizophrenic to outsiders who pay attention to these things. Washington Riesling, the first attempt to define the state’s wine identity,  can be great here, but it is a white wine and red wines get most of the attention in the wine world today. Young wine regions like Washington want that attention, so Riesling fell off the radar despite its high quality and strong sales.

Multiple Identities

Merlot was The Next Big Thing and Washington Merlot can be great, too. Washington makes some of the best Merlot in the world, Jancis Robsinson once wrote, sending hearts hereabouts fluttering with excitement. But, so what? she added. Merlot isn’t a serious wine, or so some  say, and the search for that defining variety continued.

Cabernet Sauvignon was next up and Washington has produced more than its share of 95+ point Cabs. But Napa Valley seems to have the Cab identity locked up. First rate Washington Cabs sometimes sell for half the price of second-tier Napa products. That Napa reputation seems to be invincible.

So now Washington wants to show off its Syrah wines, and they can be wonderful, too. But the damn Aussies have messed up the Syrah bonanza. I think it is easier to make quality Syrah in Washington today than it is to sell it. So the search for a wine identity goes on.

A Certain Style

Maybe it’s not a grape variety that defines Washington wine, Schoefeld suggested, but a style of wine. Bob Betz agreed in principle, suggesting that Washignton wines at their best combine Old World structure with New World fruit — a tag line that a lot of us in the audience liked, even if it might be difficult to communicate to consumers.

Tasting through the Washington wines (from Riesling to Merlot, Cab and Syrah), Schoenfeld asked the panel and audience, “Can you tell that this is a Washington wine — does it have the Washington style?” He certainly thought so, but I never saw more than half the hands go up.

This was a pretty serious  winemaker, consumer, trade and journalist audience. They’ve tasted a lot of wine and a lot of Washington wine. All the wines Schoenfeld selected were interesting, but did they individually or collectively outline a Washington style? I didn’t think so. I’ve tasted wines similar to these from other regions and I have tasted very good Washington wines with completely different styles from these. I don’t claim to be a skilled wine taster (which might for once be an advantage since I am on a par with many consumers in this regard), but I can’t find a definitive Washington style.

What did I conclude from this interesting (and delicious) investigation? Having a successful regional wine identity is an advantage in the marketplace, but Washington doesn’t have one. Bob Betz may be right about Old World structure and New World fruit, but I don’t think wine style is easily understood by many consumers.

No Strong Identity. No Crisis Either.

Grape variety is easy to understand and communicate, but that leaves the question which one? If I had to choose, I would select Riesling on the basis of market penetration. Chateau Ste Michelle is the largest producer of Riesling wines in the world (yes, the world!). More Riesling grapes were crushed in 2010 (33,500 tons according to USDA data) than any other Washington variety. Washington Rieslings  (including the widely distributed Eroica, Poet’s Leap and Pacific Rim wines) can hold their own with the best in the world. What more do you want in a wine identity?

But there’s that status thing (red trumps white) and many of Washington’s iconic producers don’t make Rieslings, so focusing on this variety to the exclusion of others would in some ways be counter-productive in terms of regional identity.

So where does that leave us? Washington may lack a strong wine identity but I don’t think it has an identity crisis. Better no single identity than a bad one (think Brand Australia). Better to produce many types and styles of good wine and simply celebrate that!

[Thanks to the Washington Wine Commission for inviting me to attend the Taste Washington seminars.]

>>><<<

Taste Washington Seminars / March 26, 2011

In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style

Moderator:
Bruce Schoenfeld (Travel & Leisure Magazine)
Panelists:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Shayn Bjornholm MS (Washington State Wine Commission)
Sandy Block MW (Legal Seafoods)
Drew Hendricks MS (Pappas Brothers)
Wines:
2008 Louis Michel “Montée de Tonnerre” 1er Cru Chablis, FR
2004 Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, Ribera del Duero, Spain $70
2001 Cavallotto “Riserva Vignolo” Barolo, Piemonte, Italy $75
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, CV $24
2007 Hightower Cellars Merlot, CV $28
2007 Abeja “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, CV $80
2007 Cadence “Ceil du Cheval” Blend, RM $45
2008 Betz Family Winery “La Serenne” Syrah, YV $50
2008 Cayuse Vineyards “En Chamberlin” Syrah, WWV $65

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone —  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!