What Can We Learn from the Wine in Moderation Movement?

paul-giamatti-drinking-a-001Some say that it is time for the wine industry to take the initiative to change perceptions through a generic promotion program.  The “Got Milk?” campaign made people think about milk a bit differently. Maybe a similar initiative could shift the needle on wine?

One concern, as I wrote last week, is that as memorable as “Got Milk?” was, it didn’t prevent milk’s ultimate marketplace decline. Maybe “Got Wine?” isn’t the answer. But what would a better approach look like?

Wine in Moderation

I think there are lessons to be learned by studying the Wine in Moderation movement  that began in Europe a decade ago and has now spread to many corners of the wine world.

new_branding_slideshowWine in Moderation was founded in 2008 at a time when the European wine industry faced a growing threat. It wasn’t just that wine demand was falling — that had been going on for a couple of decades. And it wasn’t just the global financial crisis, either, although that didn’t help. It was rising anti-alcohol sentiments and policies that threatened wine both as an economic activity and also as an integral part of European culture.

I asked George Sandeman, President of the Wine in Moderation Association, to explain WiM’s objectives and the lessons they have learned.

Although a message of “moderation” seemed to be well aligned with the way wines are presented on a day to day basis, focusing quality rather than quantity, we encountered difficulty in waking up the wine sector to the cold wind blowing from Geneva.

Initially there was no recognition of the social responsibility attributed to the “wine sector” (“leave it to beer and spirits!”). At best it was a reluctance to accept the fact that wine needed to be part of the social responsibility which the category required, and at worst we were sleepwalking into the same treatment as tobacco.

The traditional culture of wine was frequently overridden by need to compete in new market environments … Add to this a powerful health lobby working to demonize wine …

So the first two lessons are that the wine industry needs to wake up to sector-wide issues. And the positive story of wine doesn’t tell itself. Someone has to do it.

What wine needed, the group’s founders proposed, was an organization that would help its members tell the counter-story of wine’s benefits when consumed in moderation, and would lean against the wind of damaging anti-alcohol regulations. This was no easy task, Sandeman notes. “The concept of ‘moderation’ is not a simple concept to communicate, varies with different cultures and viewpoints, and is difficult to translate for non-English speaking countries …”

Strength in Numbers 

Wine in Moderation has evolved in the 10+ years since it was founded (you can read about its progress here). As its efforts have gained traction, it has moved from a tight European policy focus to an approach that is broader in both geography and strategy. The map of Wine in Moderation activities is now global and its focus is shifting to education of professionals. Although there are Wine in Moderation activities in the U.S. I suspect that the impact is somewhat limited by the lack of a national coordinating organization,  a role played, for example, by Vinos de Chile, Unioni Italiani Vini, ACIBEV, and FEV in Chile, Italy, Portugal, and Spain respectively.

Seventeen national organization plus several global wine companies (Pernod Ricard, Möet Hennesy, Sogrape), and a host of other groups including WSET and the Institute of the Masters of Wine now support and implement Wine in Moderation programs around the world.

So the third lesson is that there is strength in numbers. It is important to work together on several levels to address important issues.

I first learned about Wine in Moderation from George Sandeman and Susana Garcia Dolla when I was speaking at ACIBEV meetings in Porto a few years ago. Since then I have noted the group’s participation at national and international meetings, always presenting a message of wine in a cultural context.

Wine in Moderation announced a major rebranding in November 2019 with the theme of Choose – Share – Care, which the leaders hope will carry the organization forward into even more ambitious professional and consumer programs in its next decade.

  • CHOOSE to make informed choices; choose the best wine for you to enjoy, choose whether or not to drink.
  • SHARE wine with friends & family, pair with good food and water. Drink slowly and take the time to fully appreciate.
  • CARE about the wine you serve, care about yourself and about others. Avoid excess and enjoy your wine in moderation!

Increased focus on wine tourism is another element of future work. Wine in Moderation’s association with the United Nations World Tourism Organization is one step along the path to providing wineries and regional groups with more tools to shape perceptions and develop the wine tourism experience.

Strike the Right Chord

Two things about Wine in Moderation are especially relevant to the current U.S. concerns. First, while I will admit that Choose-Share-Care does not have that “Got Milk?” punch, the message is one that I think might strike a chord with some of the groups that wine is currently failing to engage.  Health, community, and culture is a strong positive message and one that resonates with young the old alike.

And the way of getting the message out is relevant too. One thing that impresses me about Wine in Moderation (another lesson?) is its multi-layer approach. Here’s how it works:

  • The international coordination is provided by a not-for-profit international association, the WiM Association.
  • In each country, there are one or more WiM national coordinators that support the planning, coordination, implementation and accountability of the programme in their respective countries.
  • WiM supporters join the programme at national level. They actively support a wine culture that inspires well-being and healthy lifestyles and contributes in the prevention and reduction of alcohol related harm.
  • Leading wine companies further support the efforts made at international and national level setting the example with their leadership in social responsibility and high contributions. These leading companies are the Wine in Moderation Ambassadors.

Wine in Moderation movement members are given the tools they need to spread the word, which is a model that could work here in the U.S. Leadership is needed, of course, but it seems to me that our many regional wine associations and wine companies, too, would benefit from bringing a coordinated message into their diverse communications programs.

I can imagine a program with a general message agreed at a high level, but implemented with creative local twists and turns by the dozens of regional wine associations around the U.S. Such a plan would share the creative energy (and cost) while leveraging wine’s broad and diverse base.

Work together? Is that realistic? Well, what’s the alternative? In Europe, as George Sandeman said, the alternative was being regulated like tobacco. The alternative here in the U.S might be a  gradual (and then sudden) wine market bust.

This Changes Everything?

Everyone would like to find a silver bullet that would change everything for wine — in a positive way. But silver bullets are hard to come by and they show up in unexpected places. Do you remember the impact of the 60 Minutes “French Paradox” broadcast? Or the Sideways boost for Pinot Noir? (BTW Miles’ “dump bucket” scene from Sideways is definitely not an example of moderate wine consumption!)

Wine in Moderation has moved the needle in its target regions according to its most recent report. Worth further study, don’t think?

Got Wine? Is It Time for a Generic Wine Promotion Campaign?

 

I’ve had several conversations recently that circled back to the idea that the wine industry should invest in a generic promotion campaign. You know what I mean. Not “Got Milk?” (maybe the most celebrated generic promotion of all time), but something along the lines of “Got Wine?” or “Got California Wine?” depending on who’s talking.

“Got Wine?” is too copy-cat to work, of course. You can come up with something better if you give it some thought. But you get the idea.

Subsidy Wars?

One argument for generic promotion of wine is based on the realization that wine isn’t connecting with new, younger consumers the way we hoped or expected. If we want consumers to have a particular image of wine (or of the wine-drinker identity), maybe we should be more proactive in shaping perceptions.  Laissez-faire isn’t working so well. Let’s do something.

A second argument, which would support “Got California Wine?” or “Got American Wine?” is provoked by the  subsidies the European Union is giving to its member states to promote their wines in the U.S. market.

Years ago the EU used to support prices and winegrower incomes directly, but buying up surplus grapes and wine (we called the result the European Wine Lake). Now the EU has changed tactics and supports the modernization of wine production and the promotion of exports. Basically, they want the wines to be marketable and if the EU market won’t buy it all (and it won’t), then exports are promoted to avoid re-filling the dreaded lake.

This is a better approach from an economic standpoint, but you cannot blame American producers for thinking that it creates an uneven playing field. It might be better, many argue, to get the EU to stop subsidizing wine export promotion. But that would be complicated and take time. In the short run, the argument goes, generic promotion of U.S. wines might even things up a little.

Milk is All Over

Talking about wine promotion got me thinking about milk. That “Got Milk?” promotion ran for 25 years and attracted lots of attention. All sorts of celebrities posed with milk mustaches (aka moo-staches) to draw attention to milk and its broad appeal.  Everyone enjoys milk — that was the message. The Whoopi Goldberg ad was my favorite.

But, memorable as these advertisements are, they were fighting a losing battle. Increasingly, American consumers don’t follow the “Got Milk?” path.

milkI first realized this a few years ago when I heard wine economics guru Karl Storchmann talk about trends in various consumer beverages. He examined Google data about searches for wine, tea, coffee, milk, and water and concluded that  while water was rocking it, milk was fading fast. “Milk is all over,” Karl said at the time (here is a pdf of his study).

Karl wasn’t wrong. Dean Foods, America’s largest milk producer, filed for bankruptcy in November 2019.  Milk sales fell for 4 years in a row as Americans shifted to plant-based cow-milk alternatives, including oat milk and especially almond milk.

Wine vs Milk?

Got Milk? Yes. Always. But increasingly it doesn’t come from a cow.

When you think about it, what happened to milk is a little bit like what seems to be happening to wine. There are lots of new products available that compete with wine including craft beer, craft spirits, and alcoholic sparkling water.  Some of these products are popular in part because they have less alcohol than wine, addressing a health concern  in the same way that almond milk avoids a health problem for some dairy-intolerant consumers.

Is wine all over? I don’t think so. But the industry is obviously not as healthy as we’d like it to be.

So what should wine do? A generic campaign is fine, but it matters a lot who it is aimed at, what it says, and how it is organized. And someone has to pay for it. A “Got Wine?” style consumer-focused campaign isn’t the only option.

Sue and I recently attended a promotional event for Italian wine that was aimed at trade — importers, distributors, sommeliers, journalists, and various “influencers” — but not consumers themselves (there was no consumer tasting).  The product chain for wine is long and complex and there are several points where promotion can be effective.

Come back next week for thoughts on some of the issues that a “Got Wine?” push needs to take into account. In the meantime, I have discovered that there already is a GOT Wine — GOT stands for Game of Thrones!

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The chart comparing Google search term data for wine, milk, etc. is taken from Karl Storchmann, “Wine Economics.” Journal of Wine Economics 7:1 (2012), p. 3.

The video above is the very first “Got Milk?” commercial.

Thanksgiving Flashback: Black Friday Wine

beaujolais-nouveau-e1477026349777Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and it is a time for remembering and being grateful. I am grateful for friends and family and for all the wonderful wine choices we have today. As for remembering, here is an abridged version of a Thanksgiving Wine Economist column from 2009.

The Black Friday Wine?

I called Beaujolais Nouveau a “Black Friday wine” back in 2009 because good sales were critical for producers and distributors who wanted to finish the year profitably “in the black.” Success was certainly not guaranteed back then, with the global financial crisis still casting its dark shadow over wine sales.

A lot has changed in 10 years. The economic crisis has passed, for example, but the current trade war, with its 25% tariff on French still wines below 14% abv has come at a bad time for Nouveau. Some of it arrived on U.S. shores just in time to pay the extra tax. Yikes!  The Georges DuBoeuf we found at the local market is listed at 13.8% abv, just below the 14% abv line where the tariff would disappear.

Indications are that suppliers are absorbing some of the additional cost in order to preserve their market. That makes sense since the selling window for Nouveau is relative narrow. No one is very interested in old (last year’s) Nouveau.

The DuBoeuf’s price — $10.99 — is about the same as last year, suggesting slimmer margins somewhere along the product chain in an effort to keep price down. Will this be a Black Friday? Too soon to be sure.

Here’s a blast from the 2009 past. Happy Thanksgiving!

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(November 23, 2009) Although the United States is not the only country to set aside a day for giving thanks, we like to think of Thanksgiving as our distinctive holiday. It was conceived as a day for deep reflection, but Thanksgiving has evolved into a long weekend of over-consumption and discount shopping. Some of my friends really prefer to celebrate Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season formally begins and retailers find out if they will be “in the black” for the year based upon early sales data.

If you plan an Old Time giving-thanks Thanksgiving, then Nouveau is not for you. If wine were literature, my friend Patrick points out, Nouveau would be the trashy paperback novel you read at the beach. Nothing wrong in that — everyone needs an escape once in a while.

The grapes for Nouveau are picked in late September or thereabouts and the only thing that prevents instant sale is the necessity of fermentation and the mechanics of distribution.  It’s still a bit sweet when it’s bottled and sometimes a bit fizzy, too, when it arrives with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November (a week before Turkey Day). Best served cold (like revenge!) it is the ultimate cash flow wine.

Black Friday Wine?

Nouveau is not very sophisticated, so why do the French, who otherwise are known to guard their terroirist image, bother with it? The Beaujolias producers make very nice ordinary (non-nouveau) wines; character complexity, you can have it all and for a surprisingly low price.

Ah, but that’s the problem. Sitting close to prestigious Burgundy, the Beaujolais cannot command high prices for their wines, good as they are, so they must try to make money through turnover more than markup. They churn out millions of bottles of Nouveau to pay the bills.

At the peak of the bubble in 1992 about half of all wines made in Beaujolais were Nouveau. The proportion remains high even today. Ironically, Nouveau often sells at prices as high as Beaujolais’ more serious wines because it is marketed so well. So it is hard to see why you’d want to buy it instead of the region’s other wines. It’s easy, on the other hand, to see why you’d want to sell it.

Beaujolais Nouveau, it seems, is France’s Black Friday wine! If the makers can sell their Nouveau, then maybe the bottom line for the year will be in the black. If the Nouveau market fails, well that red stain on the floor won’t be just spilled wine.

Nouveau is therefore generally marketed around the world with more than the usual urgency (just as those Black Friday sales seem a little desperate at times) — and not just because young wines hit their “best by” date pretty quickly. This year things are even more stressful than usual, as you might imagine, with the economic crisis still on everyone’s minds and 10+ percent unemployment here in the United States.

An American Wine?

Beaujolais Nouveau sounds like the perfect wine for American consumers brought up on 2-liter jugs of fizzy-sweet Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. If you were kinda cynical, you would think Nouveau was an American wine … made in USA.

And it is, in a way. Although the wine obviously comes from France (and there is actually a long tradition of simple and fun early-release new wines in France and elsewhere), I think it is fair to say that the Nouveau phenomenon is an American invention.

W.J. Deutsch & Sons, the American distributors, really put Beaujolias in general and Nouveau in particular on the U.S. wine market map when they became exclusive distributors for Georges Duboeuf some years ago. They took this simple wine and made it a marketing event. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China and only the brilliant Deutsch family could sell Nouveau!

In fact they were so successful that they partnered with another family firm — the Casella family from Australia — and created a second wine phenomenon tailored to American tastes: Yellow Tail!

So although Nouveau is an American wine of sorts and might be perfectly crafted for this American holiday as we actually celebrate it on Friday, I’m going to pass this year (on Thursday, at least) and see if I can nurse some thoughtful reflection from my holiday glass instead. Cheers, everyone! And thanks.

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2019 update: I passed on Nouveau back in 2009, but I will try some of the 2019 vintage over the holiday weekend this year. Hmmm. I wonder if I can find it in a can

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

What’s Up with Italian Wine in the U.S. Market?

docItalian wine has a lot going for it in the U.S. market. Wines from Italy are by far the largest category of imported wines. Recent Nielsen figures (reported in Wine Business Monthly) show almost $1.2 billion in 52-week sales of Italian wines in the channels that Nielsen surveys — that is almost a third of all spending on wine imports and far more than #2 Australia ($720 million) and #3 New Zealand  ($496 million). France is #4 at $462 million.

Tariffs? Que Bello? Pazzo!

Italy has benefited from the hot market for sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular. And it gained an unexpected advantage over its European neighbors due to the peculiarities of the recently-imposed U.S. tariffs on European wines. Imports of many wines from France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. are subject to a 25% tax.  What’s the tax on Italian wine imports? Zero. Zippo. Niente. Que bello!

(See Suzanne Mustacich’s excellent Wine Spectator article on the wine trade war for more details.)

How did Italy dodge the tariff bullet? I don’t think there is an official explanation or obvious economic rationale.  Pazzo! Must be politics, don’t you think? Maybe it has something to do with the high-level Trump administration officials with Italian-sounding names? Or maybe Italy’s not so closely associated with subsidies to Airbus, which provoked the WTO rulings and subsequent tariffs. Strange, but good for Italian producers trying to get their foot in the U.S. door (or working to open the door a little wider).

It would be a mistake to take these advantages for granted and the Italians are working hard to consolidate their market base and move forward. Or at least that’s what we think after attending the Seattle stop on the “Simply Italian Great Wines US Tour 2019.” We spent the day attending seminars sponsored by the European Union and wine region groups and meeting producers (many of whom were seeking local distribution) at a walk-around tasting.

[Two favorites from the walk-around tasting were Societa Agricola Sturm from Collio — fantastic Ribolla Gialla — and Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardina’s Cantina Giampietro Puggioni.]

Out of the Shadow

The Seattle event reminded us of how much we love the wines of Italy. But it also highlighted some of the challenges that Italy faces.

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. Although an amazing array of Italian wines can be found in the U.S. market, there are a few names that dominate the conversation: Chianti, for example, and Prosecco. It is easy for other wines from other regions to be over-shadowed. Sue and I saw the shadow effect when we stopped at a nearby Total Wine, which has a big selection of Italian wines. We were looking for wines from Friuli and we found just a hand-full  — mainly Pinot Grigio. The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves.

This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Italians love to drink sparkling wines and they make some terrific ones. And although my friends in Conegliano hate to hear me say it, it is a shame that the only Italian sparkler that most Americans can name is Prosecco.

I wish they’d give more attention to Francicorta DOCG, which faces a similar challenge to Vino Nobile. Franciacorta is often said to be the “Champagne” of Italy. It is made using the classic method from mainly but not exclusively the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes . The comparison to Champagne is understandable and the wines stand up well compared to their French cousins.

But it is not always helpful to think of Franciacorta this way because if you want Champagne you want Champagne and not necessarily something else. Franciacorta needs to more clearly develop a distinctly Italian identity that positions it apart from French wines and also Prosecco. The two Franciacorta DOCG wines were tasted were delicious — and I don’t think the skilled presenter ever called them Italy’s Champagne. I know producers are working hard to build their market category because the current interest in sparkling wines presents a great opportunity.

A Grape or a Region?

One of the sessions focused on DOC Pinot Grigo delle Venezie. Pinot Grigio is one of white wine’s big success stories in the U.S. market. Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is the second largest selling white wine category in the U.S. market, according to Nielsen figures, far behind #1 Chardonnay but well ahead of #3 Sauvignon Blanc.

Some of the Italians I have met like to imagine that all the Pinot Grigio sold in the U.S. comes from Italy — and Italy might have dominated this category a few years ago — but now Pinot Grigio is grown just about everywhere. I made risotto a few nights ago with a nice little Pinot Grigio from Washington state. That is the problem with the “signature wine grape variety” strategy. The category may start associated with a particular place, but often the place fades and it is just about the grape and then it is anyone’s game.

Italian producers hope to stake a territorial claim to the Pinot Grigio market with DOC Pinot Grigio delle Venezie — Pinot Grigio from a specific region subject to DOC rules and regulations. The consorzio logo above is meant to establish the identity. Italy first — can you miss the green-white-red stripes? And then Venice and Venezie as symbolized by the stylized prow of a Venetian gondola. Italy, Venice, Gondolas. Get it? That’s Pinot Grigio.

It is easy to be a little skeptical about the effort to re-brand Pinot Grigio this way since Americans generally know little about DOC and DOCG designations, but in this case there is reason for cautious optimism because many of the DOC Pinot Grigio wines have big marketing and distribution muscle behind them. The list of wines that were tasted in Seattle, for example, includes DOC wines from Lumina by Ruffino (Constellation Brands), Prophecy by Cantine di Mezzacorona (Gallo), Montresor (Total Wine & More), and Cupcake (The Wine Group).

Pinot Grigio won’t stop being a grape variety that could come from anywhere, but with some effort it can  also be a regional wine of Italy once again.

Italian wine makers are luckier than most. They face challenges, some of which are the product of their own success, but there is a tremendous reservoir of good will and affection for Italy and its wines.  The struggle for market attention is therefore not easy but still possible.  The Seattle event has inspired us to look more closely at the Italian wine mosaic and to try to appreciate a bit more its many shapes, colors, and styles.

Wine Book Launch Today: Discover Hungarian Wine

Our good friends, Charine Tan and Matthew Horkey of Exotic Wine Travel, are launching their fourth wine book today: Discover Hungarian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide, available for pre-order via their Kickstarter website.

Sue and I have crossed paths with Matt and Charine in typically exotic places — Tbilisi, Georgia; Iasi, Romania; Carcassonne, France — and we have come to value their judgement and to admire their creativity, energy, and commitment. They bring these qualities to their wine guides, which are written to help independent travelers (and travel dreamers, too) get the most out of their experiences.

Hungary is a great choice for their latest book. Hungarian wines were once celebrated as among the best in the world. Then a perfect storm of crises changed everything. Phylloxera, war, depression, war, communism, post-communism struggles, and emergence into an increasingly competitive wine world. It is amazing that Hungarian wine survived. But it did.

More and more visitors are coming to Hungary (many on those ridiculously popular river cruises) to discover the culture, history, music, and food of this unique land. And they are discovering the wines, too. But this is unknown territory for most visitors (and most wine consumers generally), so they need a sympathetic guide to get the most out of their experiences and that’s where Matt and Charine come in.

“The book will offer practical information that help visitors to learn about Hungarian wine, shop for Hungarian wine, enjoy Hungarian wine, and most of all, feel empowered to explore Hungarian wine,” said Matthew Horkey.

“The Exotic Wine Travel’s guidebooks are always written and designed with one goal in mind: to help wine lovers and travelers save time and money by helping them to skip or shorten the trial-and-error process of finding the wines they like. We always aim to produce a guidebook that we wished we had when we first visited a wine country,” said Charine Tan.

A book launch is like a grape harvest — it sets in motion the process that eventually fills our glass with delight. Looking forward to a great Hungarian wine vintage from Matt and Charine. Cheers!

The Future of Wine on “The Rocks”

mfrocks2The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is a distinctive wine region. Small in size, it is defined, more or less by an alluvial fan. The rocks go very deep and draw vine roots down with them. To provide perspective To Kalon, the famous Napa Valley vineyard that is the source of many cult wines including Opus One, is also an alluvial fan. Terroirist territory to be sure.

Rock Power

Early settlers to the Walla Walla region and those who followed planted fruit trees in the rocks. Grape vines? Some for sure (see Kevin Pogue’s comment below — and a few of the Cinsault vines are still there), but things really took off when Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards came along and drew attention to the area’s potential. Cayuse, Horsepower (another Baron project), Reynvaan Family Vineyards and others made the rocky region a focus of intense interest among wine-makers and wine lovers.

The wines can be amazing. Sue and I visited Cayuse a few years ago and I was prepared to be disappointed. Clearly the wines themselves could not live up to the hype that surrounded them. But I was wrong. Powerful, aromatic, elegant. Terrific. The Horsepower wines, which come from some of the most densely-planted vineyards I have ever seen, are powerful, too, and intimidate me a bit.

Rocky Finesse

rockA recent visit with the Reynvaan family reinforced our enthusiasm for the wines from this area. The Reynvaans purchased the land for their “In the Rocks” vineyard from Baron and started making wine with his help. Now Matt Reynvaan makes the wines and his sister Amanda (who was my student at the University of Puget Sound) handles operations.  Rich, elegant — that’s what my notes say for Syrah co-fermented with Viognier. A classic Cabernet blend from the “In the Rocks” vineyard blew my mind with its finesse and surprised me because I tend to think of the rocky vineyards here in terms of Rhone grape varieties. Think again.

Cayuse and Reynvaan command Napa-style attention and critics’ praise, but if you are thinking Napa Valley when you visit Milton-Freewater to see the rocks, you will be very disappointed. Although it is part of the Walla Walla AVA, The Rocks District sub-appellation is over the border in Oregon, away from the fine-dining restaurants and tasting rooms of Main Street Walla Walla. Milton-Freewater is what it has long been, a real agriculture town that serves the needs of farmers and workers more than tourists.

We visited Watermill Winery, which has one of the few tasting rooms on the Oregon side of the border. You almost can’t miss the big Watermill Building, which once stored fruit from the owners’ orchards and now houses cider production (and associated tasting room) and the winery, too.  Watermill’s owners are fortunate to have considerable acreage in The Rocks District and are intent on expanding wine production in the next few years. The wines are excellent — Sue is especially fond of the “Hallowed Stones” Cabernet Franc — and they are more available and affordable than cult wines.

Far From Napa

stonesThe small footprint of The Rocks District limits wine production in the long run,  but many new vineyards are in the works today. Water is an issue, of course, and so is profitability. High quality tree fruit from The Rocks District exported to Asian luxury markets can be more profitable than wine grapes at this time according to one source.

Land prices and grape prices here are far below Napa levels. $45,000 buys an acre of vineyard land with secure water rights, we were told. How much prime vineyard land do you think $45,000 buys in Napa these days?

Driving through the rocky area presents a different scene from Napa, too. Orchards, vineyards, a few residential houses, and open fields.  I wonder what it will look like in twenty years? Very different, I think!

The Milton-Freewater local leaders want to encourage wine-fueled economic development in order to capture value-added beyond grape production. So, in partnership with Willamette Valley Vineyards, who have vineyard interests in the area, the city is working to develop a shared-use wine production facility and high-end tasting room.

If You Build It They Will Come

The tasting room is intended to draw wine tourists across the border with the hope that they bring some cash with them. The shared-use concept, where several wine “studios” exist under the same roof,  takes advantage of a quirk in wine regulations that currently limits the number of wines that can use “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA” designation.

Most of the local wineries are located on the Washington side of the border, but the grapes are in Oregon. A Washington winery can use Walla Walla Valley to designate its wines from The Rocks District because the WW appellation spans the border, but the wines actually need to be produced in Oregon to use “The Rocks District” designation.

Most wines that come from “The Rocks District” today therefore cannot say they are from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater appellation, which limits the AVA brand’s value. Investors in The Rocks District are caught in a sort of Catch 22 situation and Milton-Freewater hopes to break the deadlock by attracting a critical mass of producers, who can use the AVA name by producing at the new facility.  It’s kind of a “if you build it they will come” business strategy and marketing studies are in progress to see if the idea as promising as proponents believe. 

Force Majeure has built production facilities on the Oregon side and Rotie Cellars, which is known for its Rhone Blends, is just finishing a production and tasting room facility. Everyone we met is watching these projects closely to see how they are received along with a handful of other serious projects currently in process.

Steve Robertson, President of the Rocks District Winegrowers, is an enthusiastic advocate of the AVA he helped create. He writes that

As you know, there are only 340 prox. planted acres today within the AVA, and most of that is controlled by estates. Additionally, today’s modest volume of Rocks District wines are highly sought after in the marketplace….many of which are allocated. This will all begin to change over the next handful of years. New vineyard development will push planted acres to over 500 within this time frame. And a majority of those planned-to-be-planted acres will be delivered by new entities to WW Valley. Indeed, a couple hundred of those acres wine grapes will be available to other producers. A transition is surely in the making!

Robertson sees a critical mass of vineyards, wine grapes, and wineries using The Rocks District appellation on the horizon. Certainly there is a lot of excitement and interest. And the wines we have tasted merit the attention they receive.

Wine on “The  Rocks” District? I’ll drink to that!

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.