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.

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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.”

Walla Walla: Pioneers, Next Gen, Foreign Legion & Millennials

Harvard business professor Michael Porter famously conceived of a “cluster” theory of “competitive advantage.” It isn’t one thing that makes a regional industry successful, he said, but rather it involves the dynamic interaction of a network of forces and factors that, when they come together, create an environment where all are successful.

Porter’s “diamond” analysis can be applied to many regions and industries, even wine. In fact. Nick Velluzzi of the Walla Walla Community College has applied it to his region’s wine sector (click here to read about his research). If you are interested in wine clusters or Walla Walla you should check out his work.

I am interested in how and why Walla Walla has risen to the top tier of American wine region, but  this week I want to talk in terms of human networks not Porter’s approach, which focuses on networks of market institutions. It seems to me that one aspect of Walla Walla’s success has been the dynamic interaction of wine industry people, who I will divide into four loose groups: the Pioneers, the Next Generation, the Foreign Legion and the Millennials.

The Pioneers

Let me start with a group that I will call the Pioneers, who got things started in the early days which, since this is the New World, was really just a few years ago.  Although I don’t want to name too many names for fear of forgetting someone, this group would certainly include Marty Clubb and the Ferguson family (L’Ecole No 41), Rick Small and Darcy Fugman-Small (Woodward Canyon) and Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellar) plus Norm McKibben (Pepper Bridge) who came on the wine scene a little bit later after a successful career in construction, and Gordy Venneri and Myles Anderson at Walla Walla Vintners.

Apparently nobody told the Pioneers that this was wheat country (maybe they just didn’t listen). Or maybe the noticed the hillside apple  orchards and the small planting of grapes left by the early Italian immigrants (more about this in a future column) and connected the dots. In any case, they and others like them were the  leaders in establishing the vineyards and cellars and the reputation of the wines as well. Walla Walla today would not exist without the contributions of the Pioneers.

The Next Generation

It seems to me that the next step was  growth, with a new generation of wine people entering the scene, ēand what is significant is that the original insiders and the newcomers found ways to work together rather butt heads. I count my former student Chuck Reininger in this group, although his eponymous winery has deep local roots through his wife Tracy Tucker Reininger’s family.

One of the ways that the Pioneers and the Next Generation worked together was in developing the vineyards. Although there are estate wineries in Walla Walla, much of the local industry is organized along an American agriculture model, which means that the farming and the processing are often organized as separate business but obviously related functions, not always part of a vertically integrated unit.

Partnerships were formed to develop the key vineyard sites that supplied high quality grapes to the Pioneers and the Next Generation, too, which allowed the industry to grow much faster than if each little winery had its own small plot of land.

Foreign Legion

International influence within the human network has been valuable for Walla Walla.  French and Italian settlers are part of the Walla Walla story (Lowden, where L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon make home today, was called “Frenchtown”)  A number of talented Europeans were part of the next wave of wine and the synergy continued. Prime among the Foreign Legionnaires are Giles Nicault (Long Shadows), Marie-Eve Gilla (Forgeron), Jean-François Pellet (Pepper Bridge) and Christophe Baron (Cayuse).

Allen Shoup, who was instrumental in forming partnerships with the Antinori and Loosen wineries when he headed Chateau Ste Michelle, continued to attract international talent, investment and attention with his Long Shadows project.  John Duval, Michel Rolland and many other international wine stars each make a wine with Washington grapes at Long Shadows.

The Millennials

Several waves of new wine people have arrived since the dawn of the 21st century — I’ll call these the Millennials. I count my former student Michael Corliss of Corliss and Tranche along with fellow University of Puget Sound alumnus Randall Hopkins (Corvus Cellars) in this large and expanding group.

The Corliss winery fills an impressively renovated former bakery building near the center of town. Hopkins’ Corvus Cellars is located out at the airport, in a winery incubator complex organized specifically to make new entry into the local industry possible.  They are very different in scale and scope, but both intensely focused on the vineyard — and both produce superior wines (I am unbiased in this, I assure you!).

Reaching a Critical Mass

They are part of a movement , which includes wineries and vineyards large and small, that has created a critical mass of fine wineries that attract critical attention to the region, new talent to the local industry, wine tourists to fill the hotel beds and restaurant tables and provide the basis for the industry’s future growth. (A critical mass to support competitive associated and supporting sectors is part of the Porter model of success.)

I’ve only scratched the surface of this human network analysis, but I hope you get my point. The characteristics of the human networks that evolve are important in every wine region. They are particularly obvious in Walla Walla because of the region’s short history, small scale and the continuing synergies between and among the groups I have identified here.

How do these different groups and overlapping generations fit together to form a powerful human network? In a lot of little ways and one big way that is a key to Walla Walla’s future. Come back next week see what I’m talking about.

Walla Walla Comes of Age

Sue and I recently returned from 10 days in the Walla Walla AVA — half spent attending events sponsored by the Walla Walla Wine Alliance celebrating the AVA’s 30th birthday through a celebration of  its wines and half with the American Association of Wine Economists who met at Whitman College.

Coming of Age in Washington

As we drove back over the Cascades towards home base in Tacoma, we talked about key takeaway messages and at the top of both of our lists was the region’s coming of age. We’ve visited Walla Walla many times over the years and watched it grow and change, but without ever having a sense that it had achieved its potential.

Maybe it is because we had more time on this visit or maybe it is because we had so much access and guidance (from the Wine Alliance as well as from our growing list of winemaker friends there), but somehow this time it all came together and I will use the next few columns to tell you how and why we came to this conclusion and what it might mean.

International Recognition

A number of factors contributed to our view but as fortune would have it a single event sort of summed up the moment. We were up on a hilltop on the Oregon side of the AVA for a festive dinner at the Glass House at the Caderetta vineyard and we tasted a number of Bordeaux blend wines with the meal. (Scroll down to view the wines and menu for that dinner.) Marty Clubb of the Walla Walla pioneer winery L’Ecole No. 41 was there and we tasted his 2011 Ferguson Vineyard blend. I think we could actually see the recently developed Ferguson Vineyard over the hill from our vantage point.

The wine was great, with a real sense of place (more to come about this in future posts) and Marty told us that he was about to fly off to London because of this wine. The L’Ecole team was so happy with the Ferguson that they had entered it in the Decanter World Wine Awards and he had been summoned to London for the awards dinner.

The invitation meant that the wine had won one of the bigger prizes — not just a bronze, silver or gold. Maybe a regional trophy (best U.S. Bordeaux variety wine?) or maybe even an International Trophy (best of all the wine in this category from all over the world!). No way to tell which it was, but he was willing to fly to London to find out. How exciting!

lecole A couple of days later I was busy hitting the F5 reload key on my laptop, impatient to see the Decanter results appear on my screen. And finally at 1:01 pm there they were. L’Ecole won the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Variety Red Wine over £15 –– the top award in what must be one of the most competitive wine categories.

Wow — I couldn’t stop smiling when I learned that. Happy for Marty and his team. And happy for Walla Walla and Washington — great recognition for their wines. And a sign of Walla Walla’s coming of age, don’t you think?

Art versus Science?

I don’t know if I was lucky or not, but I got the news when I was surrounded by my academic wine economist colleagues, who are intensely skeptical of wine competitions and rankings. I think it is possible they have collectively devoted far too much of their very considerable intellectual firepower to proving what I think is obvious — that judging wines, even using expert tasters and careful protocols, is more subjective art than objective science.

Winning a Decanter award or any other obviously doesn’t prove that one particular wine is objectively “better” (whatever that  means) than any other. But, I would argue, it is hard to deny that the excellence of the L’Ecole Ferguson stood out to the initial American tasting panel, which is how it entered in the International Trophy competition. And it obviously stood out there, too, when tasted with similar wines from other parts of the world. Not rocket science, I agree, but still worth celebrating.

Frenchtown Schoolhouse Roots

Best in the world? That’s a matter of opinion. But a sign that Walla Walla has come of age? Absolutely yes! And while LEcole is not the only Walla Walla winery set to take a place on the national and global stage, it is a very good example for us to study.  The Ferguson vineyard itself, for example, shows L’Ecole’s determination to expand production without diluting quality and, at over 40,000 cases, L’Ecole  is now large for a Washington producer (although everyone is small compared with Chateau Ste Michelle and its sister wineries, which together produce well more than half of all the wine in the state).

L’Ecole’s recently re-designed label also suggests a thoughtful approach to moving into the national spotlight.  The old label was a playful rendering of the historic schoolhouse that serves as the winery tasting room today in the tiny town of Lowden, which was known in days past as Frenchtown because of the French settlers there. The new label keeps the Frenchtown schoolhouse image, but updates it and presents the wine in an elegant way that communicates quality to a broader audience while respecting the heritage of the winery and the region.

Is the L’Ecole Ferguson’s award the whole “coming of age” story? Far from it — I’m just getting started. Stay tuned.

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Before I go: Here’s a brief video that Marty Clubb made before his London flight. I include it here because it anticipates my next column, but also because it gives you a sense of our experience talking with Marty on that high ridge overlooking the Ferguson vineyard last month. Enjoy!

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Thanks to everyone we met in Walla Walla for their help and hospitality. Special thanks guide extraordinare Sharon Ferraro and to Duane Wollmuth and Heather Bradshaw of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance. Here’s the menu from the dinner at the Cadaretta glass house. Enjoy!

menu

The Wine World Comes to Walla Walla

OK, so The World — the whole world! — is not really coming to Walla Walla, the lively wine town in Southeast Washington State, but the city and AVA are hosting two events that promise to draw participants from far and wide. Sue and I will be attending both, so we thought we’d fill you in.

The World of Syrah

2014 is the Walla Walla AVA’s 30th birthday and they are marking the occasion with a three-day program called Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine: The World of Syrah on June 19-21, 2014. Click on the link for details.

Walla Walla Syrah will be explored through a series of tastings, talks and dinners.  The inclusion of winemakers from outside the region (including Gary Mills from Australia’s Jamsheed winery) gives the event a global flair, but it must be said that the Walla Walla industry is pretty globalized itself, with influences and investment from the world over.

The Long Shadows winery, for example, features famous partner/flying winemakers from around the world, each of whom makes one wine in a distinctive style from Washington grapes. Michel Rolland, John Duval and Armin Diel are among the international winemakers here.

Some of the best known resident names in Walla Walla wine are international, too, such as Giles Nicault, Jean-Françoise Pellet, Marie-Eve Gilla and Christophe Baron. Walla Walla in intensely local and extremely global at the same time — just what I like!

Sue and I are fortunate to be part of a media group that will go behind he scenes to visit the vineyards, meet the wine people and get to know both the region’s Syrahs and its other wines as well. We are looking forward to the experience.

Wine Economists in Walla Walla

The American Association of Wine Economists will be in town June 22-25 for their annual meetings and we are looking forward to a lot of interesting papers and presentations. I expect to greet fellow wine economists from every continent except Antarctica at the meetings!

Click here to download the conference program, which includes dozens of presentations, a lecture on the region’s terroirs by geologist Kevin Pogue, a panel discussion of U.S. wine market regulation and a festive dinner at the Long Shadows winery.

The World of Syrah and the wine economists back-to-back meetings looks like a great opportunity for me to catch up with the wine’s global-local dynamic and for the world to take a closer look at this dynamic region. Look for future columns about what I learn.

Invisible Vineyards & the Division of Labor Theory

Last week I wrote about the Yakima Valley AVA, which I described as Washington’s invisible vineyard. Why doesn’t it get more attention? I considered the “amenities gap” theory and concluded that it was at best a partial explanation. This week I dig a bit deeper into the issue.

Division of Labor Theory

The romantic idea of wine is a tiny vineyard farmed by a rugged individual who makes wine right there on the spot. We call this an estate winery and for better or worse the conventional wisdom holds that its it the model for quality wine. There are estate wineries in Yakima, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

In general the Washington State model is that there is a division of labor between farming the grapes and making the wine. The vineyards hereabouts are often large and supply grapes to many different wineries. The advantages of scale are tempered with the ability to give special treatment to particular blocks, rows, and sometimes specific grape vines within the larger vineyard.

Exceptional Exceptions

Betz Family Winery and Brian Carter Cellars  are both extreme and typical at the same time. Their wines earn the highest praise, but I don’t think they own any vineyards at all — they “outsource” the grape growing to others (although I think they are far from “laissez faire” in their relations with their winegrowers.) There is no indication that their wines suffer from the lack of “estate” status and probably benefit from the specialized system that has evolved.

Côte Bonneville is an instructive exception to the rule. Kerry Shiels makes the wines from grapes grown by her parents Hugh and Kathy at their iconic DuBrul Vineyard. But only a fraction of the grapes go into the estate wines — the majority are sold to a short list of wineries that are happy to feature the DuBrul Vineyard name on their labels.

Thurston Wolfe is another exceptional example. Wade Wolfe, who has inherited Walter Clore’s place as the valley’s leading viticultural authority, relies upon winemaking skill and an unchallenged knowledge of the region’s vineyards. He makes wines that have a cult-like following despite their lack of “estate” designation. An estate vineyard provides only a small proportion of the winery’s fruit — the rest is purchased.

Famous Names

Many of the most famous names in Yakima Valley such as Boushey and Red Willow are vineyards, not wineries, famous for the quality of their fruit and the dedication of their owners.  But they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves. This model has been very successful and accounts in part for the growth of the Washington wine industry since it is possible to start a new winery, a capital intensive commitment, without also having to develop equally capital intensive vineyard properties. If wine is really made in the vineyards, then Washington wineries with access to these Yakima vineyards start the game with a real advantage.

But the division of labor has also contributed to Yakima’s invisibility. More attention is given to Walla Walla and Red Mountain (a Yakima AVA sub-appellation), for example, in part I think because the estate winery model is more typical in these areas, helping them to achieve a stronger reputation.

(One consequence of the division of labor is that many wineries blend across regions, which they could not do with an estate wine, drawing upon fruit from different vineyards, rather than focusing on expressing a particular terroir. Some critics argue that something is lost in this process, even though the wines may be very good or objectively even better than similar single-vineyard products. And because the vineyards may not all be within the Yakima AVA’s strict boundary, their wines often carry the broader Columbia Valley appellation.)

Westward Ho!

This division of labor was shaped early on by Chateau Ste Michelle’s decision to build its showcase winery in rainy Western Washington, in Woodinville just a short drive from Seattle, rather than in the more distant Yakima Valley where the grapes are grown It must have seemed like a peculiar choice back in the 1970s, but it has turned out to be a brilliant move in terms of the development of the wine industry. (Ste Michelle makes its white wines in Woodinville — the freshly pressed juice is rushed to the winery by tank truck — while the red wines are made in the wine country itself).

Because wine is an industry that seems to develop in clusters, one result of the Ste Michelle strategy has been to help create a vibrant wine production zone in the Seattle area, with literally hundreds of wineries, all far from the vineyards that supply them. Even wineries that have no production facilities in the Seattle area see the wisdom of setting up tasting room operations to facilitate direct sales to the critical mass of wine tourist consumers that the cluster has encouraged.

There are wine clusters in the Yakima Valley, too (especially around Prosser and on Red Mountain), but they are obviously smaller than on the west side of the Cascades and are less successful in generating critical mass. This is changing, however. A number of new investments are in the works including Ste Michelle’s decision to convert its Snoqualmie brand facility in Prosser into a home for its spectacularly successful 14 Hands wines. This might be the cornerstone investment that really starts things moving.

Is This a Problem?

Yakima is sort of a middle sister. Not as big as the Columbia Valley of which it is an integral part but huge compared to the sub-AVAs like Red Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills that live within it.  Some producers choose the broader designation for their wines while others prefer to focus on the more local name. Yakima, which is key to both the big and little, is left to spend Saturday night alone at  home. How sad.

But I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and so I am glad that the Yakima Valley wine folks are choosing to use the occasion of their 30th birthday to celebrate what and who they are, focusing on the wines, vineyards and the people who make and tend them.

It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that there would be no Washington wine industry without the Yakima Valley. The next time you pull the cork of a Washington State wine you might stop to consider the invisible vineyards that are responsible for the liquid in your glass.

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Here’s my favorite example of the division of labor (and how not to do it!).