What’s Up in Walla Walla? Wine Tourism

downtownwallawallaWalla Walla has become an important wine center and an exciting place to visit, but it wasn’t always that way. When Sue and I first came here years ago you could count the wineries on one hand and Main Street, which really was the main street of the town, was strictly for locals and their everyday needs. If there was a destination address on Main Street it might have been Brights Candies or the historic theater across the street.

Walla Walla’s business was agriculture back them –wheat, peas, and the famous sweet onions — and the banks and suppliers that farmers need to get along.  A state prison and prestigious Whitman College — an unlikely combination — were the urban anchor bookends.

The farms are still there and still very important and so are the prison and the college, but what draws thousands of tourists to Walla Walla today are wineries and vineyards.  Sue and I paid a quick visit to the valley in the middle of the week shortly after Labor Day and here’s what we found.

Urban Wine Village

Although the buildings look the same from the outside, downtown has been transformed by wine tourism. It is possible to spend a few days enjoyably tasting wine just by meandering up and down Main Street and its tributaries, without every getting into a car or walking too far from your hotel.

Winery tasting rooms line the streets along with restaurants, cafes, tourist shops … and Brights Candies.  Strolling on a weekday afternoon watching people sitting at sidewalk tables sharing bottles of wine presents a scene that could not have been imagined twenty years ago.  As the sun went down, lights and music came up and people of all ages appeared — seniors, families with children, college students. Lots of dogs, of course. A nice mix.

With so many tasting rooms in just a few blocks, product differentiation is important. Cayuse, the ultimate local allocation-list cult wine, is famous for having a brightly painted tasting room  … that never seems to be open. How exclusive is that? Other wineries keep their doors open as much as they can because direct-to-consumer sales and wine club commitments are critical to their economic sustainability.

One tasting room featured wine slushies as a way to stand out in the crowd. Kinda like a Slurpee at 7-11, I guess, but with alcohol from the wine base. Didn’t try it but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out on a 90-degree August day. Something for everyone.

Slowly then Suddenly: Critical Mass

A successful wine tourism sector requires a critical mass of visitors, tasting rooms, accommodations, food, and drink, which have all slowly and then suddenly come together on Main Street. Or at least that’s how it feels to us, and this is backed up by a 2019 economic impact study (pdf here).

Although many of the visitors surveyed indicated that they first came to Walla Walla ten or more years ago like us, nearly a quarter only made their initial visit in the last two years  (see table II-11). And they returned because there is so much to do, see, and taste. Impressive.

Even the prison gets some love. We stopped to taste at The Walls, which is named for the prison walls that are just a short distance from the winery.  The wines were powerful but elegant — a difficult balancing act — even the “Concrete Mama” Syrah (another reference to prison walls). Sue was especially fond of a Tempranillo from The Rocks district called “Wonderful Nightmare.”

Rioja to Walla Walla

The newest wine tourism destination is south of town near the Oregon border — Valdemar Estates.  The winery facility opened just a few months ago, but it is already getting hundreds of visitors each day. The winery is the project of Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora, the fifth generation of his Spanish winemaking family, who has planted a flag here in Walla Walla.

The winery and tasting room are stunning, with stylish contemporary Spanish flair, but I think visitors come for a unique experience. They can taste Valdemar’s Walla Walla and Red Mountain Syrahs — with additional wine offerings in the pipeline. But there’s more because Valdemar’s Spanish wines are also available. And you can taste them, comparing old world and new, in the best possible way, gazing out over vineyards with plates of tasty fresh-made tapas to pair with the wines.

Delicious tapas and fine wines — no wonder that visitors are attracted to Valdemar Estates. And the winery seems committed to becoming part of the community, advancing the region and not just their own wines and business.

Love Me Like the Rocks

It will be interesting to see how this project develops, especially as a new center of gravity develops in Walla Walla.  Wineries and tasting rooms are just about everywhere in this area — Main Street, out at the airport, near the Blue Mountains, in the vineyards south and west of town, too.  But there’s one area that hasn’t seen much development … yet.

Some  great wine comes from the rocky vineyards across the state line in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, including iconic Reynvaan and Cayuse, but not many visitors head this way. Is this the next frontier for Walla Walla wine tourism? Come back next week for our closer look at the future of The Rocks.

What’s Ahead for 2019? Wine Economist World Tour Update

51ppzy7bwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_The Wine Economist World tour continues in 2019 and I thought you might  be interested in the who/what/when/where because I think my speaking schedule reflects some important issues and concerns in the  global wine business. Here’s an annotated itinerary.

Unified Wine and Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is the Big Show, the largest wine industry gathering in the hemisphere. About 14,000 people will come to Sacramento for the sessions, trade show, and networking opportunities. The Wednesday morning State of the Industry session draws a huge standing-room-only audience that will be anxious to hear about this year’s special challenges: slowing economy, plateauing demand, surplus stocks, and useful strategies to deal with these problems.

I will moderate the session and present, too, along with Jeff Bitter, Allied Grape Growers, Danny Brager, The Nielsen Company, Marissa Lange, LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards, and Glenn Proctor, Ciatti Company. This is a fantastic lineup of speakers with much to say about the industry today and in the future. Not to be missed.

I will be busy again on Thursday morning as co-moderator with L. Federico Casassa, California Polytechnic State University, of “Technology Thursday: From Drones to Chatbots; How the Wine Industry is Embracing Digitalization.”  The speakers will examine digital technology in the vineyard, cellar, and beyond, revealing what’s already available, what is coming soon, and what the  distant future holds. The distant future, by the way, is only ten years away — the pace of technological change is that fast.

There is much to discuss, so there will be about a dozen speakers including Bob Coleman, Treasury Wine Estates, Nick Dokoozlian, E. & J. Gallo Winery, David S. Ebert, Purdue University, Nick Goldschmidt, Goldschmidt Vineyards, Liz Mercer, WISE Academy,  Miguel Pedroza, California State University, Fresno. and Will Thomas, Ridge Vineyards, California. . Each speaker will have just ten “Ted Talk” minutes, so hold onto your hats!

Washington Winegrowers Convention

I will be a busy guy at the Washington Winegrowers Convention & Trade Show in Kennewick, Washington, February 11-14, 2019. I’ll begin early on the morning of the 12th moderating and presenting at the State of the Industry session, which will deal with some of the economic challenges facing the region’s wine businesses today.

Joining me will be Wade Wolfe, Thurston Wolfe Winery, Chris Bitter, Vintage Economics, Steve Fredricks, Turrentine Brokerage, and Jim Mortensen, President & CEO,  Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

In the afternoon I will be part of a session on “Intentional Rosé.”Rosé is the hottest category in wine and so it is no surprise that it gets a full session here and also at the Unified.

I will talk about the global market dynamic and be joined by Megan Hughes, Barnard Griffin winery, Rob Griffin, founder of Barnard Griffin winery, Lacey Lybeck , Vineyard Manager at Sagemoor Vineyards, and Vincent Garge, Maison Henri Garde, Bordeaux. Fred Dex with lead a tasting of Rosé from around the world.

Porto Climate Change and Wine Conference

Sue and I are looking forward to the discussion at Climate Change: Solutions for the Wine Industry in Porto on March 6-7. The focus will be on action, not just talk, which is much appreciated. Al Gore is giving the closing address and a host of wine industry leaders will speak on their concrete efforts to address the challenge of climate change. Climate change is such an obvious risk to the wine industry. It is great to see so many rise to meet the challenge.

I will be moderating and presenting at a session called “Efficiency & Economics: Call to Action,” which I assure you will be more interesting than it sounds. Joining me on the panel are Stephen Rannekleiv, Executive Director, Food & Agribusiness Research at Rabobank, and Malcom Preston, Global Head of Sustainability Services at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Chile’s National Wine Fair

Sue and I are looking forward to being at Viña Viñamar, Chile on May 15-16 for the Feira Nacional Vitivinicola.  I will be speaking about Chilean wine on the global stage, which is appropriate given that Chile is such an important wine exporting nation. Chile is hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 2019 and I expect that the National Wine Fair will take full advantage of this opportunity. The U.K. and U.S. have long been Chile’s top export markets, but China became #1 in 2017.

British Columbia Winegrape Council Conference

I’ve been invited to speak about the economics of sustainable winegrowing at the BC Winegrape Council Enology & Viticulture Conference and Tradeshow in Penticton, British Columbia in July  Sustainability is on everyone’s lips (see climate change conference above), but the transition from theory to practice or talk to action is a challenge. Looking forward to discussing this issue with my BC friends and colleagues.

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Change is the common feature of all these programs. Changing economic conditions, changing market focus (who would have guessed that everyone would be talking about Rosé?), climate change and sustainable practices, and technological change, too. Change is always disruptive and always interesting, too. Hope to see you somewhere along the wine road in 2019.

Wine Economist Top 5 of 2018

251626This week’s Wine Economist looks back at the five columns first published in 2018 that captured the most interest among the wine industry audience that frequents this page.

Sometimes it is difficult to find a common thread among the top columns, but not this year. Readers were concerned about U.S. wine sales and they focused on analysis that they hoped might give them insights into the changing market place and especially how to deal with the changing wine consumer base. Take a look at the Top 5 and see if you agree.

#5 U.S. Wine Sales: Five Surprising Facts

Concerns about wine sales were obviously on readers’ minds when this September 2018 column appeared. The premise of the piece was simple: we are all pretty familiar with the conventional wisdom about the wine market but the conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold in a changing world. Sometimes you need to look more closely at the data (Nielsen data in this case) to see what’s actually going on.

There were plenty of surprises to be found (five of them, as the title indicates), including Zinfandel’s high average price (higher than Pinot or Cab), Cabernet’s move past Chardonnay in total sales, the resurgence of French wine (think pink), Australia’s real sales challenge (price, not quantity), and Washington wine’s unexpected prominence when you shift the frame of reference a bit.

#4 Beyond Boom & Bust: Taking a Closer Look at the SVB Report

The Silicon Valley Bank‘s annual wine industry report always gets a lot of attention and with good reason. Timely analysis + innovative thinking + clear presentation = required reading.  But the complexity of the study is sometimes lost in the rush to report the headline conclusions. So I decided to take a deeper dive and shine a light on some of the aspects that weren’t getting the attention they deserved, especially with respect to the generational transition in the wine market.

This also gave me an opportunity to make a point of my own: sometimes the differences within generational cohorts are as important as the difference between them.

#3 Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

shaw1Organic food has moved from a niche to an important market segment. A lot of us have been waiting for wine to catch up. Bronco Wine, the makers of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck), apparently got tired of waiting and, working with Trader Joe’s stores, introduced Shaw Organic, a line of affordable wines made with organic grapes.

Bronco is the largest vineyard owner in the U.S. (40,000 acres at last count) and has quietly become the largest grower of organic grapes as well. Is Shaw Organic the breakout wine — the wine that will create a critical mass of consumers who look for organic wine the same way that Two Buck Chuck democratized the wine market more generally? Too soon to tell, but it is a trend to watch.

#2 The Changing Face of Wine in America: The Cooper’s Hawk Phenomenon

Direct-to-consumer wine sales are on everyone’s mind. With costs rising faster than prices in most cases, those full-margin wine club sales have become a very high priority. Some say that many Napa Valley producers couldn’t keep the lights on without their wine club sales.

So who has the largest wine club? Incredibly, it is an Illinois-based restaurant and winery business called Cooper’s Hawk, which counts about 300,000 wine club members who visit their local restaurants once a month to pick up the latest wine. What makes Cooper’s Hawk so successful (and how can wineries reach the market they’ve developed)? And can the lessons of Cooper’s Hawk be applied more generally? Timely questions. No wonder this is the #2 column of the year.

#1 Outlaw Wine: 19 Crimes Succeeds by Breaking All the Wine Marketing Rules.

Millennials. They are the wine market of the future and the future is now. But what do they want and how do you get their attention? This May 2018 column, which is top of the list, looks at an incredibly successful Treasury Wine Estates product that was specifically developed to appeal to millennial men.

It is called 19 Crimes, which is kind of a strange name for a wine, and while I am not a big fan of the wine itself (it wasn’t crafted to appeal to me), I am very impressed with the way it has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations by breaking all the wine marketing rules.

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This is the final Wine Economist column of 2018. See you next year!

Wine Tourism Challenge: Giving City Visitors a Taste of the Wine Country

The most famous explanation of international trade is David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage. England can make both cloth and wine and so can Portugal, but they will both gain if England specializes in cloth and trades it for Portuguese wines on the basis of each country’s relative efficiency of production.

Divine Will?

There are other trade theories if you aren’t satisfied with Comparative Advantage. One of my favorites is what you might call the Divine Will theory of trade, which holds that God distributed people and the stuff they want and need much differently so that they would be forced to trade or else do without. And trade, the theory holds, brings people together peacefully as Divine Will intends.

I hesitate to invoke Divine Will, but it certainly is true that the wine trade throughout history has been driven in part by the fact that population centers where wine is consumed and vineyard regions where wine is produced do not always coincide.

Getting the wine to consumers is a technical (and, because of taxes and other regulations, legal) problem that has been solved for better or worse over the centuries. The vast wine wall at your local upscale supermarket may not prove Divine Will but it certainly is an impressive achievement.

The growing industry of wine tourism, however, turns the problem on its head. Now the issue is how to get people to the sometimes far distant vineyards so that they can enjoy the experience. Back when wine tourism was just about cellar door sales this was a relatively modest problem, but today wine tourism is an important industry with economic multiplier effects that extend beyond the tasting room.

How do you give consumers a taste of the wine country experience if they are unable to get to wine country itself?

Real and Virtual Reality at Brancott Estate

I discovered one possible solution in an interesting article on the VeeR VR Blog. Marlborough’s Brancott Estate, which is part of the Pernod Ricard wine empire, partnered with Found Studio to create an experience of the “Red Shed,” named for the estate’s famous big red building that is the program’s home base (see video above).

Virtual visitors don VR headsets and can explore the vineyards and the shed and — in a rather remarkable innovation that I have not yet tried — actually sense something of the wines through scents that the headset releases at key moments. This prepares participants for the “real” reality experience of tasting the wines that follows the VR exploration.

This is obviously a pretty complicated way to bring wine country to the city or anywhere else and at this stage it probably risks becoming as much or more about the technology as the wine itself. But it also has the potential to surprise and delight in magical ways. Is this the wine tourism of the 4-D future? Probably one aspect of it and a glimpse of what the future might hold. Stay tuned — this could be pretty interesting.

Woodinville Wine Cluster

We found a second very interesting approach in Woodinville, Washington, which is located a short drive from Seattle and is a major wine tourism destination. There are precious few vineyards here (a few demonstration vines in front of Chateau Ste Michelle and a small Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard at Hollywood Hills Vineyards). But there are more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms, forming a rather impressive wine industry cluster and wine tourism opportunity.

The wineries, following the production model set by Chateau Ste Michelle in the 1970s, truck grapes or grape juice over the Cascade Mountains from the Eastern Washington vineyards and make and package the wine close the market rather than close to the farms. Fast, efficient, refrigerated transport helps assure high quality raw materials and excellent final product. Some of the wineries are showcases like Chateau Ste Michelle while others are working spaces in the warehouse district. Taken together they made a successful industrial cluster.

Tasting rooms began to spring up alongside the wineries when, a few years ago, Washington law was changed to allow wineries to have off-site sales rooms in addition to their traditional cellar door facilities. Wineries based in the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, the Walla Walla Valley, and elsewhere rushed to open tasting rooms in Woodinville, creating the wine tourism destination you see now.

Sue and I were accompanied by our friend Hermes Navarro del Valle, who is an expert on the global tourism industry with a special interest in wine tourism. It was interesting to see Woodinville through his eyes. We began our visit at Chateau Ste Michelle, which has recently opened a new visitor center that I will talk about next week.

Then we moved on to two of the several small wine tourism clusters, each of which features cafes or restaurants as well as a selection of tasting rooms. We stopped for lunch, for example, at The Bistro at the Hollywood Schoolhouse, a casual, friendly place with good food and a nice wine list.  Then we walked a few steps to visit one of the half-dozen or so nearby tasting rooms. I wanted Hermes to taste the wines of Amavi and Pepperbridge from Walla Walla. especially and Amavi Syrah and the Pepperbridge Trine, which is one of the “Around the World in Eighty Wines” selections.

Hermes was excited by the possibilities he saw.  If a tourist could get from Seattle to Woodinville, there were lots of eating and tasting options — easy to spend a day here learning about the wines. But he quickly focused on the problem of local transportation — getting around between and among the different winery and tasting room clusters was going to be problem. There needed to be some sort of shuttle that would circulate around the wine routes, he said. A good public-private investment for the local government, Hermes thought.

We glimpsed how that might develop when we moved on to a nearby cluster for our next visit. This space is anchored by a popular wine-themed restaurant called Purple and featured eight or nine tasting rooms with more just across the road.. We started at Fidelitas, which is one of our favorite. The tasting room manager turned out to be Will Hoppes, son of winemaker Charlie Hoppes, so we felt very much at home. Fidelitas is located on Red Mountain and we enjoyed sampling wines from the estate vineyard as well as Quintessence and Champoux vineyards.

As we settled into tasting we started chatting with another visitor, Mark Pembrooke, who is CEO of W3 Tours and may be the solution to the local transportation bottleneck that Hermes diagnosed. W3 Tours provides a variety of winery shuttle services in the Walla Walla Valley and Mark was in Woodinville working on a project to expand his shuttle services here.

If the shuttle service is successful it will take cars off the roads, easing the congestion that we have seen on peak weekends, and help tourists get the most out of their time. Mark said that he was grateful for the support of several wineries who benefit from his service in Walla Walla and have supported the expansion to Woodinville. Hermes was impressed with the entrepreneurship and suggested the next step: discount coupon books to encourage visitors to spend more time and money in the tasting rooms.252494_172be_feb17_3740

We had time for two more tasting room visits and I selected Brian Carter Cellars and DeLille Cellars, which were conveniently located on the other side of the compact parking lot from Fidelitas and next door to each other. They represent very different ideas of Washington wine, which is what I wanted Hermes to see and taste.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends like the poplar D2 and elegant Four Flags Cab are what DeLille is known for while Brian Carter likes to source a diverse range of grape varieties s to make blends that often pay tribute other regions.

Hermes was particularly taken with a Brian Carter wine called Corrida (Spanish for bullfight), a blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Garnacha from the Columbia Valley. The wine was balanced and had great character. A fine way to end our tour.

Wine Tourism Cluster Advantages

We were able to experience something of the variety that Washington wine offers both in terms of terroir and varietal character in just a short span of time and space. And there were about 100 other opportunities available for our  next visit.

All four of the tasting rooms we visited were warm and friendly and staffed by people who knew their stuff and could answer questions confidently. We appreciate their time and generous hospitality.  The individual wineries and tasting rooms are working hard to build their markets and establish a successful wine tourism industry here.

Problems remain, of course. Traffic congestion on peak weekends can remind a visitor of Napa Valley, for example, and there is room for more hospitality infrastructure, too. And it might be possible that Woodinville has exceeded critical mass and there are now too many tasting rooms competing for the same customers for all of them to be successful. I will be interested to see if a new cluster appears in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood where Browne Family Vineyards is opening a tasting room nearby to The Estates Wine Room.

But you could see Hermes thinking that this might be a useful model for other parts of the world — Mendoza comes to mind — where the wineries and vineyards are far from town and distance limits the growth of the wine tourism industry.

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As I noted above, our visit to Woodinville began with a tour of Chateau Ste Michelle’s new visitor center. Come back next week for details.

Video credit: Brancott Estate – ‘The Red Shed’ VR Experience from Found Studio on Vimeo.

The Genius of Charles Smith and the Land versus Brand Wine Wars

What do you know about Charles Smith? He’s a marketing genius! Where does he get his ideas? Do you know what he is going to do next?1029780x

We were in a restaurant in Yountville, the heart of the Napa Valley, talking with one of the valley’s best winemakers. There was a lot to discuss, but our friend was pretty focused. He was fascinated by Charles Smith.

And that’s not really a surprise. Charles Smith has a reputation as a premier brand builder, a marketing genius. That’s not the whole Charles Smith story, but it is how some people think of what he is and does, especially after the 2016 sale of his Charles Smith Wine (CSW) brand lineup to Constellation Brands for a cool $120 million.

Smith came to Walla Walla to make terroir-driven wines. His first vintage was 330 cases of the 1999 K Syrah made from grapes grown in The Rocks vineyard area supplied by Cayuse winemaker Christophe Baron. The wine was so good, according to an excellent Wine Spectator profile, that it convinced local bankers to help finance the operation. Bankable wine? Quite an accomplishment.

House Wine to Kung Fu Girl

K Syrah is a clever, memorable wine brand (think “Que Sera Sera”), but the commercial branding story really starts in 2003-2004, when a killing frost hit Walla Walla and winemakers like Smith had to scramble to get grapes or bulk wine from other parts of Washington to give them something to sell to pay the bills.

kung-fu-girl-riesling

Smith seized the moment to launch the Magnificent Wine Company and its House Wine lineup. The popularly-priced negociant wines with the fun labels sold out. Everyone needs a house wine — House Red, House White, and so on. Sales quickly scaled.

Precept Brands invested in House Wine in 2006 and purchased the brand outright in 2011. The current lineup includes House Red, House White, Steak House, Fish House, and other House wines packaged in bottles, boxes, and cans.

Charles Smith Wines came next — continuing the House Wine philosophy of giving people what they want in a simple but stylish way, but a step or two up the wine market ladder. Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot, Eve Chardonnay, Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon and who can forget Kung Fu Girl Riesling — each wine had its own personality and offered buyers lots of quality per dollar.

These CSW wines have two things in common. First, they have distinctive graphic design elements provided by the talented Rikke Korff, who has handled all the design work for Charles Smith since the beginning. The labels are instantly recognizable and always make me smile. Nothing like the staid chateau drawings or cute critter images that many wines feature.

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The second common feature is that the wines are good and good value. Kung Fu Girl Riesling, the best-selling wine in the line and a frequent recipient of “Top 100” wine awards, sources grapes from the exceptional Evergreen Vineyard. It’s the real deal.

The Modernist Wine Project

There are a lot of ways to think about the CSW wine program, but the winery website likes to call it part of a “modernist” project. The idea seems to be to look at consumers as they really are and then give them a product that satisfies their needs. This means wines that are ready to drink upon release, that are balanced and taste good with food or without it, and that are affordable and carried to market on a relatively simple message relayed through exciting graphical design.

The genius of Charles Smith was to put all of this together — the wines, the message, the design, the marketing — and to get the project rolling in 2006,  just before the Great Recession hit the United States. The CSW wines offered recession-shocked buyers an opportunity to trade over to a more casual idea of wine, not just to trade down to something a bit cheaper. Mix all this with a lot of hard work in the vineyard, cellar and on marketing and it is no wonder the wines were so successful.

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It is well known that I admire this sort of genius. The subtitle of my 2011 book Wine Wars referenced the “Miracle of Two Buck Chuck.” It was indeed a miracle that Fred Franzia and his team at Bronco Wine and the smart folks at Trader Joe’s markets could give millions of Americans the confidence they previously lacked to try and enjoy wine. Charles Smith built upon this foundation with great success and in a particular “modernist” way, first with House Wine and then the CSW brands.

The modernist project continues. Smith will consult with Constellation Brands on the CSW portfolio to help it scale up successfully. And then there is Vino, which was not part of the Constellation Brands deal, a tasty lineup of Washington-grown Italian-varietal wines that are instantly recognizable as a Charles Smith product by their label design and offer an unexpectedly sincere homage to the Italian origins of their grapes.

The Pinot Grigio, for example, has minerality you won’t find in a lot of other wines of this type and the Moscato will remind you a bit of a nice Moscato d’Asti. These wines probably don’t have to be this good to sell at their price points. But they are.

The Battle of Land Versus Brand

It would be easy to typecast Charles Smith as a brand guy in the battle of Land versus Brand. The fact of the Constellation Brands purchase offers some evidence. After all, Constellation is famous these days for paying big bucks for brands that have no vineyards or wineries attached to them.  The Meomi brand was purchased for $315 million and The Prisoner for $285 million, for example.k_syrah_beautiful

Viewed in this perspective, Charles Smith’s experience with House Wine and then the CSW brands seems to typecast him as a very successful brand-spinner — a genius at the game as my Napa Valley winemaker friend pointed out. And what you would expect from Smith is more of the same.

But there is more to Charles Smith than brand-building. The K Vintners wine that started it all back in Walla Walla has evolved into a rather interesting collectiomn of single-vineyard wines (Land not just cool Brand), exploring the possibilities of Syrah and Viognier with side-trips to Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Malbec. An all-Chardonnay line called Sixto offers single-vineyard wines plus a multi-vineyard blend.

Washington’s Randall Grahm?

And so the question must be asked, is Charles Smith Land or Brand? The answer seems to be both, which makes him a complicated person (and maybe more of a genius than my Napa friend realized). Is Charles Smith Washington wine’s answer to California’s Randall Grahm? I dunno. What do you think?

To find out what Charles Smith is up to these days and maybe learn about what comes next we paid a visit a few weeks ago to his Jet City Winery near Boeing Field in Seattle to learn about a particular vision of Land and Brand. Come back next week to see what we discovered.

The Black Prince and the Fifth Element: Walla Walla Wine Renaissance

This is the last in a series of columns about Walla Walla’s wine industry. I previously proposed that Walla Walla has “come of age” as a leading wine region. How did it happen? No single factor can explain it all. Previous columns have examined two of the five “pillars” of the region’s success, the Land and the People. In this final column I’ll quickly discuss history, culture and what I call “the spark.” 

The Fifth Element

“You Florentines are the fifth element,” Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed in 1300, reflecting a popular view of the unique contributions of Florentine citizens. Earth, air, water, and fire could be combined by all men to produce the simple goods of everyday life. But when the Florentine “fifth element” was added, a new and more creative alchemy was possible.

These lines back appeared in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt, which told the story of financial crisis in Renaissance Florence, Victorian Britain and Postwar America. I repeat them here because it seems to me that a modern day papal visit to Walla Walla might produce a similar sort of comment (although the current pope might include a reference to Malbec since he’s originally from Argentina).

I don’t mean to flippantly compare today’s Walla Wallans to the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, but it is true that Walla Walla wine is having something of its own renaissance and the Fifth Element, which I earlier called “the spark,” is certainly part of the story.

It is a property of the fifth element, if we take Florence as a model, that if it exists it is not in one person but everywhere within the culture that supports it and you can see that in Walla Walla today, which is bustling and growing in terms of its wine industry after a few hard Great Recession years.

The group that I call The Pioneers clearly had that fifth element spark — creative, entrepreneurial, determined. They started wineries but they also helped build the industry in many other ways — I think of Myles Anderson’s efforts to breathe life into the Walla Walla Community College Viticulture and Enology program must be recognized, for example. That program provides an affordable way for a surprisingly diverse group of students to prepare for immediate employment in the wine sector. It has helped power the growth of the industry here and throughout the region.

Christophe Baron’s “discovery” of the rocky vineyard sites in Milton-Freewater get a lots of attention — perhaps only a crazy Frenchman (a “bionic frog” according to one of his wine labels) could have built Cayuse into the cult wine that it is. Now that I have walked the vineyards and tasted the wines, I have to admit that the fuss is justified. Christophe must have a bit of the Florentine in him.

All important wine-growing regions must at some point go through a time when many creative people combine to create a new reality and identity and it is easy to see the renaissance in Walla Walla today.

The Black Prince

Walla Walla’s current blossoming has deep roots — deeper than most probably suspect. The first vines were probably planted (and wines made) about 200 years ago by French Canadians who settled in these parts between 1812 and 1821. Walla Walla was an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company empire in those days and, although there is no proof of vines and wines, everything we know about how the French Canadians behaved elsewhere suggests that a permanent settlement would not be wine-free.

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Wild Black Prince vines.

We know for sure that there were wines and vines about 150 years ago because there is evidence that the early settlers in the valley planted vines and even organized grape nurseries using plants imported from Oregon.  Frank Orselli, a native of Luca, Italy, came to Walla Walla in 1859, according to Ronald Irvine’s history of Washington wine, The Wine Project, part of an important Italian influence that can still be seen today. The wine industry thrived along with Walla Walla until the Northern Pacific Railroad construction by-passed the town in 1883, diverting growth elsewhere.

The wine didn’t go away, of course, and we were fortunate to see evidence of those Italian winegrowers when Kevin Pogue took us on a visit to the Rocks vineyard area. There, growing wild on the side of the road, where Cinsault grapes that someone still took the time to tend and harvest. Cinsault — Black Prince grapes they were called. Gary Figgins, whose winery is named Leonetti for the Italian side of his family who farmed and made wine here, is credited with tracking down the Black Prince’s true title. Cinsault is still grown in Walla Walla and wine is made. You will get a big smile from the locals if you ask for it!

A Creative Culture

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Distinctive local culture

Culture is the last of the five “pillars” of Walla Walla’s renaissance and you can see it all around you when you visit, especially downtown where a cluster of tasting rooms have erupted with cafes, restaurants and shops to support them.

We met two people who seem to represent the cultural renaissance in this area. Dan Thiesen is executive director of the culinary arts program at the Wine County Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College. Under Dan’s leadership this program has blossomed, creating affordable opportunities for those seeking culinary training and providing skilled professionals for the region’s expanding food scene.

We had two meals prepared by Dan’s talented students and had the opportunity to hear him speak about the world class program that he is building. The sky’s the limit for this program and the food-wine pairings it supports.

We also met with Joan Monteillet of Monteillet Fromagerie  just outside of nearby Dayton, Washington.  Joan and her French husband Pierre-Louis raise sheep and goats to supply their small artisan cheese business.  A visit to the fromagerie is an opportunity to connect with the food’s roots and to sample the cheeses with wines specially created for the purpose by a local producer. It is a very personal experience of the sort that wine people seek out. A perfect part of the cultural renaissance.

The Monteillet Fromagerie has become an unintended test for the local community — does it really want to embrace the renaissance opportunity? Apparently a special use permit is required for the farm’s cheese and wine sales and agri-tourist operations, which exist within a designated farming zone, and there is organized opposition to the Monteillet’s continuing operations. Hopefully community leaders will embrace the logic that has helped the wine industry to advance elsewhere in the valley and keep this part of the local culture alive and allow it to thrive.

Walla Walla’s Next Step: The SeVein Vineyard Project

 

Previous columns have argued that a critical mass of wine energy has indeed been reached in Walla Walla and it is interesting to watch ways the four groups I identified, Pioneers, Next Generation, Foreign Legion and Millennials, compete, cooperate and collectively build the region’s reputation.

Walla Walla is a farming community at heart, and probably pretty conservative. So newcomers and old timers don’t always get along. And I suspect they haven’t always got along perfectly here, either. But wine and the challenges of growing it, making it and selling it seems to have taught them the need to work together rather than squabble and the results are easy to appreciate.

I’ve been working on tracing out the multiple over-lapping human networks that I’ve observed, but I think I have only scratched the surface. The pattern of interconnections is complex and evolving. It would make a great project for a business student, human geographer or maybe an anthropologist to try to analyze the Walla Walla wine network.

The SeVein Vineyard project partners

Perhaps the biggest single indicator of the continuing dynamic interaction is the SeVeinVineyard project, which is currently being developed at the south end of the Walla Walla AVA. It shows how the different groups I have mentioned above continue to partner and invest even as they compete with each other in the marketplace.

Here is a list of partners in the project taken from the website. You can see the strong hand of the Pioneers here — they continue to shape the region’s growth —  but if you look closely you’ll see that all the elements of the complex human network are represented.

CURRENT SeVein PROPERTY OWNERS DEVELOPING VINEYARDS

When fully planted the SeVein project will increase the vineyard acreage in Walla Walla by an incredible 50 percent! Just imagine what Walla Walla will be able to do with so many more grapes! I foresee a shift to even more Walla Walla designated wines and perhaps less reliance on Columbia Valley fruit.

I suspect that the reputation of the region will grow with production, because this project seems to be about quality not just quantity. Significantly, the L’Ecole Ferguson Vineyard wine that won an International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards came from a vineyard in the SeVein project. There is more good news to come from this ambitious initiative.

Michael Porter’s theory posited that it takes the right combination of rivalry and cooperation to make a regional industry work — that, plus insanely demanding consumers, employers and so on so that competition is a race to the top, not the bottom.  Ideally, I suppose, each new generation should raise the stakes and the expectations, and I think that’s part of the story here, although standards were very high right from the start. Walla Walla is still so young — the AVA is just 30  years old this year — but you can see why it has come so far in such a short time.

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Come back next week for my final column in this series on Walla Walla. I will examine the three remaining “pillars” of the region’s success: history, culture and “the spark.”