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Washington State: a hard sell

77 comments

I like Washington State wines all right, and whenever I go up there I’m impressed by the passion and drive of the winemakers and the quality of the wines. But I have to say the Washingtonians always seem to have a kind of resentment toward California.

On the one hand they’re always reminding us here in the Golden State that California’s too hot to make balanced grapes, our wines are too alcoholic and obvious, they lack elegance, we’re on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert or something like that. Whereas they, Washington State, are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, they make more balanced wines, et cetera.

On the other hand, California sells, what? Ten times more wine than Washington State. California wine is famous all over the world, while Washington wine isn’t. California wine has the “profile” that Washington wine doesn’t, and the Washingtonians don’t like that, but don’t know quite what to do about it.

Today the Associated Press is reporting that Washington State again is trying to “raise the industry’s profile,” this time by inviting dozens of wine buyers from “major U.S. restaurants” on a tour of wineries and vineyards.

It’s always helpful to invite gatekeepers to your wine region. A personal relationship between people is more likely to result in a sale and a dedicated customer. But these sorts of junkets also have their limitations. The kind of gatekeeper — be it restaurant owner, sommelier or buyer for a large chain — who gets invited to tour Washington wine country also gets invited to tour most of the other wine countries of the world. At the end of the day, the pleasant experience in Walla Walla is trumped by pleasant experiences in the Colchagua Valley and the Barossa. The wine buyer ultimately has far more reasons to buy wine, or not to buy wine, than the mere fact she’s toured a particular place.

This was pointed out in the A.P. article by the quote attributed to Michael Mina’s somm, Tony Cha. When asked if he intended to devote a section of his wine list to Washington State wines — which the Washington Wine Commission seemed to suggest would be a nice idea — Cha replied, discretely, “We have some Washington wines, but we’ve never had a section devoted to it,” he said. “I’d like it to change, but…”. That’s a big “but.” What Cha really meant was, “but it’s not going to change.” I can’t imagine a wine list having a section for Washington wines, unless it’s actually in Washington State, and even then, it would be weird.

Cha theorized that, as Napa gets more and more expensive, Washington could step in and benefit from being the lower-cost alternative in Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I’m sure the Washington Wine Commission hopes that’s true. Problem is, the recession is driving Napa prices downward, and even as it does so, other areas in California are rapidly improving. If you’re a restaurateur trying to sell wine from a little understood region to a customer, is Walla Walla easier than Paso Robles? I don’t think so. What’s the story? “Walla Walla is this fine little appellation in eastern Washington State. No, not Washington D.C., Washington State. You know, where Seattle is. No, it doesn’t rain there all the time. In fact, Walla Walla is in what they call the ‘rain shadow’ and…”

and so on.

Versus: “Paso Robles is in the Central Coast of California, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. The region benefits from inland heat, but is cooled by breezes off the Pacific. Our sommelier is very excited about their wines.”

Now, that’s a message you can take to the bank.

  1. Steve my friend, I think you took the wrong pill before you wrote this. “I can’t imagine a wine list having a section for Washington wines, unless it’s actually in Washington State, and even then, it would be weird.” Surely you jest!? Many wine lists have Washington wine sections, and not only here in the Northwest. Why wouldn’t they? Washington makes every style and varietal of wine that California makes, along with styles that California can only dream of. Washington makes unquestionably the best rieslings and merlots in the country. California sells 10 times as much wine? Of course it does – because it makes 20 times as much plonk! Please come visit again and I will be happy to ‘splain to you why Walla Walla is really not that difficult to understand. And not, by the way, in the rain shadow. Eastern Washington is a desert. Walla Walla is where the Palouse meets the Blue mountains. It is actually possible to dry farm grapes there. No rain shadow.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Paul. My understanding is that Eastern Washington is in the rain shadow of the Cascades, i.e. the mountains wring the moisture out of the prevailing winds, which is why E.W. is a desert.

  3. Joseph Miglino says:

    Gents,

    It should not be a competion. In my view, Washington wines should stop trying to compete with California wines or French or any other wines…we don’t make California wine. Our mark on the wine world is distiction. Washington wine should strive to make and market our differances not our similarities.
    Don’t we all want something distict in our glass once in a while.
    And can we please stop with the Latitute discussion now?

    Joseph Miglino
    Wimemaker
    Martedi Winery

  4. I must admit, I’m a bit confused by this post. Sounds like you’re suggesting that people should pick California over Washington wines. To put the discussion in that tight of a frame – us against them, however you want to say it – seems awfully limiting. We all have our own experiences with wine and the people who bring us those wines – sometimes good, sometimes bad – but, for me, I’m quite happy having great wines from both regions in my cellar.

  5. I’ve actually pleasantly surprised to see Washington sections on wine lists both throughout Washington State and in places I travel. I think the key differentiator for Washington at present is quality and value. The repeated refrain that I hear from folks down in California is that they are buying Washington wine because their dollar goes a lot farther up here. Consumers and wine buyers alike respond to that. The main issue many face is that production numbers are often fairly low for these wines.

  6. Paul,

    To this Finger Lakes dweller–”Washington makes unquestionably the best rieslings…in the country.” is fightin’ words…;)

    Steve,

    Really, now. Whenever someone opens a diatribe with words like, “I like Washington State wines all right,” beware. It’s almost like them saying that “some of my best friends are…”

  7. Ann Bardue says:

    Thank you Mr. Miglino!
    As a lifetime resident of Washington State, I will admit to some possible bias regarding the timeless debate over Washington v.s. California wines and which trumps which. However, what really matters to me and many others in the long run is the diversity offered by both states. We do somethings better than California and vice versa. It’s really as simple as that.

  8. I guess the French said the same thing about Cali wine. When California wine started getting attention the only thing the French wine industry did was resort to belittling the new world stuff. I know your not a shill for California wine, but you sure sound like one here. I think it’s time for a blind tasting, the great California wine against the wine no somm in his right mind would have on his super expensive list!

  9. Steve,

    I wanted to build a list of WA wines years ago while working for the Kimpton Empire in California. My GM nixed the idea, yet everytime I opened a bottle of WA wine, usually a syrah or cab, he went bonkers for it. Give me Dry Creek Zin and E-WA syrah and I am a happy guy;-)

    DC

  10. Merlotman says:

    Go Get em Paul! We have Great, just not good wine, but yes we are still young?juvenile pups still sometimes going indoors. Dont mistake our Brashness for high ego content ,but take it for confident Quality Wine makers and Vineyards! Our due will come it just takes time! Proud consumer of Wa Wa wines!

  11. If the idea is to raise the profile by getting folks to visit Walla Walla they might want to consider the “visit.” And how it compares to landing in SFO and driving north or south through the wine country, or landing in Bordeaux and driving out into the vineyards, or landing in Lyon and driving up into Burgundy, or landing in Santa Barbara and touring a beautiful oak hilled valley. What is there to see, what is there to eat and where do you stay? I think these things contribute a great deal to a wine regions reputation. People pay a premium for a wine that brings back great memories and great stories. I could talk my wife into Santa Barbara, or Bordeaux, or Epernay, or Burgundy, but it would be a tough sell to get her to Walla Walla. Well, maybe if I promised her we were going to Whitefish, Mt. and we wouldn’t stop.

  12. Of course, what really happens all over the world, is that wine lists reflect first what the locals drink and secondly what the maker of the lists has for his or her preferences. I dont know of a restaurant here in SF that has a WA section, but there are plenty of WA wines that find their ways onto wine lists.

    It is all a bit fickle and certainly not predictable. Good restaurants want to have interesting lists with a variety of choices. But, let’s be clear. The best restaurants in Oregon do not have overwhelming amounts of CA wines on their lists. Restaurants in Seattle do not generally have overwhelming amounts of CA or OR wines. And restaurants in Paris have none of the above.

    I don’t really see why we would expect them to. Whether WA has better this or that or OR has better this or that or CA has better this or that is only a matter of intellectual interest. Wine lists are not exercises in intellectual adventurism. They are practical statements of the restaurants attempt to sell wine and make money.

  13. As usual, Charlie provides perfect clarity.

  14. Derek, a lot of the behind the scenes reality of a restaurant wine list is political. GMs and investors get involved, making decisions based on profits. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it does make our wine industry a fairly conservative place.

  15. I think Washington suffers from the lack of unique character. Forget Riesling, the buying public largely doesn’t care. The few that do buy German or French. For everything else, what would you say a Washington wine is like? I think California is the answer and that at best are equivalent of the same thing produced in CA. Paso has gone its own way with Rhones that were being ignored by the rest of CA. The Pinot craze really helped Oregon and they do have a flavor style that is somewhat unique. If all Washington can offer is better prices then they need to be a lot lower to get attention not just a couple of bucks. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some excellent Syrah, Merlot, and Cab blends from WA. Be they weren’t better or even different than similar wines in CA. And the good ones didn’t cost less either.

  16. Dear Steve,

    I came to Washington to make wine and not California, France, Oregon, etc. for a reason. I had opportunities in all of these regions, but I saw the great potential of this upcoming region. I mostly focus on Rhone-style wines and have found the area that I source from to be quite conducive for this. I have a great amount of respect for what other Rhone Rangers are doing in California and vice versa. Any of my wines can compete with what the best are doing in California and very often my wines are lower in price. I understand who my competition is and who my market is. Whether you are in California, Washington or Missouri, if the quality does not exist, it will be a hard sell.

    When it comes to wine lists. It really doesn’t matter to me as much to have a section devoted to Washington State. At this time it would be a little difficult to do this outside of the west coast. The number of wineries that have large enough production to have nationwide distribution is small. If a restaurant in Baltimore had a dozen wines from Washington State, I would love to see them put together as a region. I don’t understand why this would be weird. Personally, I prefer to see domestic producers categorized by varietals, style, etc.

    I have yet to see the real quality wines from Napa drop their prices that dramatically to make a difference and yes there are other regions of California stepping in. That’s great, but Washington wines are making their way into the market as well. Also, I hope California keeps selling ten times more wine, because there are a hundred times more wine there that needs to be sold. I have many winery owner/winemaker friends in California and I hope their businesses will still thrive and be profitable as they do mine.

    Here is my take on your restaurant scenario.

    “Paso Robles is in the Central Coast of California, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. The region benefits from inland heat, but is cooled by breezes off the Pacific. Our sommelier is very excited about their wines.”

    Versus:

    “The great wines of Washington come from an area located in the eastern part of the state. This area experiences more of a high desert climate than what you would expect. The growing season is full of intense sunshine and very cool nights, helping to maintain a wines natural balance. Our sommelier is proud to show you these wines.”

    Both statements are true. They both deserve merit.

    I believe that all individuals that strive to work hard, are filled with ambition and whose goal is to be one of the best at what they do, deserve to be recognized.

    Sincerely,

    Jon Martinez
    A Weird Washington Winemaker

  17. Morton, it must be a long time since you visited Walla Walla. Wonderful restaurants abound. The country and climate are gorgeous. The tasting fees are $5 – not $50 – and you’ll have a pretty good chance of meeting the winemaker. There are wonderful live music clubs, parades, rodeos, demolition derby events… go ahead and laugh, but it’s REAL. And if you venture 18 miles north to my little town of Waitsburg, you’ll find the best bar in the entire NW.

  18. IMHO, it is a gross mistake to compare wines from California and Washington State.
    The former has a mid-latitude (34-39º) predominantly Mediterranean climate, with extremely long growing seasons, which favors varieties with a long growing cycle like Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan (Carmenère, Nebbiolo), etc… The latter has a mid to high-latitude (45-47º) semi-desertic to desertic continental climate with a short, but hot, growing season that privileges varieties with a shorter cycle like Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Tempranillo and most white grapes.
    No wonder why Washington State’s Merlots and Syrahs are way better (more balanced and complex) than California’s.

  19. Thanks Jon Martinez.

  20. I made a trip up to Walla Walla a few years back, and as a Napa person, I was amazed (and somewhat jealous) of their soils. The story of of their geology is fascinating: huge floods, repeating again and again through time, glacial ice dams bursting, bringing rock and gravel down from around Montana, settling into vast deposits that drain well and support deep rooted vines. It seems to me that is the story unique to them that they should be telling. Latitude similarities to Bordeaux? That’s kind of ho-hum and not so compelling as ocean currents, rain shadows, and so on make for entirely different climates.

  21. The Wine Commission brought a trade tour to Washington? I wasn’t even aware. I have become successful in spite of the Wine Commission (to whom i send thousands of dollars to every year) and sell my paltry 7500 cases per year in state. An no, I don’t sell my wines to “upper end restaurants and wine shops.” Mostly i sell to wine drinkers.

    As for rain shadows, Paul G. is correct. If you think Walla Walla is dry, try the Rattlesnake Hills with only five inches annual average rainfall.

    As for California, when I visit my nephew in West Hills, I drink French and Spanish wines. I like to broaden my perspectives. I can get stuff from Bakersfield up here.

    The Grumpy Winemaker

  22. Bill, do you think that consumers or even critics have ever been swayed by stories about how soils were formed? I don’t. I mean, we all know about limestone in Champagne and Burgundy, volcanic soils in Napa Valley, pebbles in Chateauneuf, etc., but those are very simple messages. I’m not sure that a complicated tale involving huge floods, glacial ice dams and rocks from Montana — fascinating as it may be — is going to be a successful part of Washington’s story.

  23. WA makes wonderful wines, esp Bordeaux, Rhone and mixed Bordeaux / Rhone blends with usually very solid QPRs. Living in California, for better or for worse, its really hard to find anything but Columbia Crest Grand Estates and Chateau St Michelle. These are very solid, every day wines but not particularlly exciting. Does anyone know if there is someplace around Sacramento that sells a more diversified selection?

  24. Paul G. You are right it has been a long time, and my mind is probably affected by the two trips a year my family made through the area in the heat of June and later July going to and from a lake shore cabin much farther north and east and cooler. I am sure it has changed and has fun local favorites, and my memory is clouded by a boring drive by onion fields and dry scenery. Probably you have just the kind of places I frequent here. But I meant my remarks in a little less deprecative way than it was taken. What I got from Steve’s piece was that a wine region was seeking fame. No matter how great the bar outside of town or how fun the rodeo, it isn’t what contributes to a region’s name.

    I probably spent too much of my time with people who buy expensive wine, but I know what these people do when they travel. Their idea of real is a stay at Meadowood, or Calistoga Ranch, Solage, Auberge du Soleil or Sonoma Mission Inn. They want to go to Tom Keller’s restaurants, the French Laundry, Bouchon, or go casual at Ad Hoc, they are dying to try Morimoto’s, they never miss a chance to dine at Cyrus. They might even grab a bite and a bubbly at Etoile or vegetarian at Ubuntu or drop in at one of Cindy’s places. (I could make the list much longer just listing new places in Downtown Napa.) Much of the fame of the region goes beyond the wine, and the character of the whole experience determines fame.

    At the winery, the people who are following “fame” don’t care if the tasting costs $5, $50 or $100. The latter is just the price of a bottle of wine. And if it is only $5, they reason; how can it be that good? You don’t want to build a reputation on being less expensive, because most people translate less expensive differently than you might want. I’d say be happy with what you have, keep making great wine, keep an eye on costs so that you make money selling wine at the prices you can command, don’t imitate California (unfortunately I see a lot of imitation everywhere), support and promote your local food scene. You really can’t do much more.

  25. Here in western NY state–I represent a smaller high quality distributor– in 2008 & 2009 WA wines accounted for just under 25% of my domestic business. Pretty significant, especially since we don’t work with major brands. My competitors also move a lot of WA juice, and we all do so in a region where sales of local wines are especially strong. True, CA sales dominate– but the WA segment has grown solidly (mostly reds, in our case) and continues to do so both on & off premise. I find that buyers in most better accounts continue to devote more shelf and list space to the category.

  26. Steve, yes it is probably naive to think that anyone would be swayed by soil considerations just because that was my touchstone (so to speak) in learning about the wine regions when I first was attracted to wine…hours spent pouring over Hugh Johnson’s Encylopedia and so on. So what does sway people these days? I am trying to pay attention to that recently, going to more wine events, beginning to monitor the blogs, and the various social media. I am hoping to find some more positive trends than some of what I am seeing. Some consumers seem to be fascinated by winemakers (male) who show up at some of the festivals with big hair, big guts, and loud mouths and proceed to act as outrageous and obnoxious as possible. Then apparently some consumers are fascinated by winemakers tweeting everything they do troughout the day…e.g. they are up going to the gym, they are sampling the Grenache, they are driving to Paso Robles, and on and on

  27. Gee, Bill. Sounds like one or two winemakers are getting under your skin. Care to name names? I don’t know of many big-haired, loudmouthed, beer-bellied winemakers. Do you?

  28. Bill, I think what the industry really needs is some big, wave-type event that pushes wine forward, like the 60 Minutes French Paradox episode or, to a smaller degree, Sideways. Everything else is just nibbling around the edges.

  29. Christophe Hedges says:

    My Gods,

    Steve, you call yourself a wine professional? Are you really that dismayed of Washington because of state boundaries? Your post sounds like your assigning teams to growing regions. I think I did that when I was 10 years old. What if the entire pacific coast was the State of CA? Would your attitude change? You should be examining AVA’s over State boundaries? This kind of post is exactly why the future of critics in the wine industry will slowly lose influence over peoples buying decisions. A post of this quality undermines any previous efforts you’ve published.

    I suggest you research your claims a little further, as I sell many wines in CA from lower to mid pricing, and I can say the trade is very appreciative of the terroir style some of us are trying to do. I sell to expensive lists and neighborhood bistros. Put my wine on a chalkboard for all I care, so long as people realize that place of origin is what creates a concept called:

    VARIABILITY! Variability is the key to understanding the wine business, not whether something is good or bad, but rather, does it respect it’s origin? And if it does, then it will vary from place to place. That is a GOOD thing! If you understand variability, then their can be no resentment.

    FYI, Tony Cha is one person, don’t make generalizations on what he says.

    Furthermore, wine list sections are not formed because of wines being better, they are formed because of the current state of regions being dominate in the marketplace. This domination effect does not suggest quality or superiority, rather, volume and history.

    A weird resentful human from WA-

    Christophe Hedges

  30. WA has been a regional wine producer for about 40 years now and a major player for about the last 15 years or so, right? CA has been producing wine for over a century, Napa has been a household word for nearly half a century and the CA wine marketing groups outspend the WA Wine Commission by orders of magnitude.

    So, yes, it’s reasonable that most people would still need to have the word about WA wines brought to them and the passion with which it is brought will *perhaps* convince them to give the wine a try and *perhaps* the light bulb will switch on. That’s grass-roots wine marketing and it’s done one person at a time (sales person, sommelier, restaurant personnel, etc.) . Wine writers are also part of the process, regardless of their personal slant on things, as not all wine writers are all things to all people.

    Like varieties and regions, different writers appeal to different people for different reasons. As a wine salesperson who has spent a few years convincing others of the viability of wines from around the world, you have to give them a mix of the new with the established.

    Seems there’s plenty of room in the tent for all members of the wine tribe to enjoy great wine, regardless of its source.

  31. “steveg Says: I think Washington suffers from the lack of unique character. Forget Riesling, the buying public largely doesn’t care. The few that do buy German or French.”
    I have to disagree – Riesling represents more volume than Zin and is closing in on Shiraz; and that’s just in scan data, where it is probably under-represented. It’s also one of the fastest growing varieties, with broad appeal from wine geeks to casual consumers. Ch. St. Michelle and Pacific Rim are two of the largest Riesling brands in the U.S. Though Alsace is highly regarded by higher end wine consumers, its volume of Riesling is relatively small compared to the U.S. market.

  32. I say: buy what you can afford and fits your budget.
    cool post!

  33. LOL!
    What I meant to say : buy what you LIKE and can afford :)

  34. Steve,

    I loved Bill Dyer’s first remark because I think it points to what winemakers like to do at the core and that is – express the uniqueness of the grapes grown in their region. Any Californian scoffing at Walla Walla wines is doomed to stagnate and become a bit of a dinosaur (like some Europeans became when California wine started to boom). Bill, you know I love and respect you but I lost you on that Male Winemaker stuff… what has that got to do with anything? And, are you implying that female winemakers (with or without big hair) do not play marketing games or have big egos? Give me a break.

    As far as Steve’s suggestion for a big event for California wines a-la Sideways or French Paradox, I agree this could be great if done right and at the right time. I happily nominate you, Steve, to write a good script for you have both the writing and wine passions flowing in your veins. However, just as progressive European wineries did not become obsolete because California wine became competitive on a world-class level, I do not feel threatened by the obvious effort and improvement in WA wines (and other regions around the globe). If anything, we should follow what they are doing closely and maybe learn a thing or two about passion and commitment and (can I say it loud?) maybe even winemaking.

  35. Both states make a lot of wine – some great, some average, and some not worth drinking. Both states have incredibly beautiful scenery to and descriptive landscapes to accompany to help sell their wine. That’s easy.

    What I don’t get, is why you’d use your loud voice to put down Washington wines and the good people that work hard to make a living in the industry?

  36. Just one complaint about WA wine: you can’t find it in CA! Stop hording it up there and send us some down here. I can find Hedges and that’s about it. Not that Hedges isn’t a very good wine, but that’s not exactly a wide selection. WA just needs to get broader distribution. If all you make are small production wines for the local market, then there’s no way to build a broader reputation.

    One other nit I have to pick is WA wine is not winning on price at all. Is it cheaper than Napa? Sure, but most wines are and Napa is a very distorted benchmark. My perception is WA has a massive hole in the mid-range, which is probably directly related to having many high end small production offerings. Maybe a few more producers like Hedges–not massive like CC/St. Michelle, but not tiny like 99.9% of the rest of WA–would really go a long way.

  37. Oded, I think I’ll write a script about a former Israeli soldier who decides to become a winemaker while drinking on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

  38. Comparing Walla Walla to Paso Robles!? You Sir should stop writing about wine all together.

  39. Christophe Hedges says:

    Greg,

    You are correct about why we are in CA. Our pricing and production for non-estate grown wines is fairly sizable, but nowhere near Ch.STE Michelle. We are what I call a Chateau case production winery. That being said, we offer what distributors and restaurants like, quality to price ratio. Terroir wine for real people. Not market driven plonk for brand whores.

    Why do we have good QPR?

    Because we have no image tax on our wine, meaning, i have absolutely no score margin to sell on. Hedges does not believe in this system. So, we sell heavy to trade, as they think scores are a joke. What this all means is that we market to trade, which in turns rewards a company like us with affordable distribution throughout the world.

    If more wineries had a trade centric focus in WA State, which the majority severely lack in, then you would see more WA State wines in CA. Unfortunately, we have a new era up here called the Tasting room winemaker. This turns off Distributors, as your marketing is consumer based.

    ch

  40. Christophe,

    You are speaking the truth.

    When I worked the upstate NY market for Summit, a branch of Lauber Imports (in the 90s) Hedges wines were much appreciated for their QPR, so much so that I remember winning a prize for sales in my territory, for which I did not take the credit–the wine did.

  41. Christophe Hedges says:

    You are a man of Terroir. Your name will live in our history. Thank you Thomas Pellechia.

    Trade wines are coming back.

  42. Jerry Shaw says:

    Why this constant barrage of insults from a state that’s home to more commercial wineries – i.e. juice farms that want to feed the sheep? Why does California shy away from the regional recognition? Is it because they realize that their wines all taste similar? Yes, there are a handful of artistic winemakers that show their land in an amazing way. But if you really want to be distinct, then allow your wines to grow and ripen according to where you live. Stop pasteurizing your wine to feed the masses, and by all means THROW OUT THE SCORES!! We, as a society, need to learn to appreciate the region not the varietal. Classic flavors not enhanced by oak, sugar, or alcohol. I live in Oregon, but my personal tastes lay to the North. And the market here actually wants more Washington wines and some will waive the corkage on a NW wine, but charge double for California. I find this to be an interesting set of events.

    JS
    Guardian of Red Mountain

  43. Doug Goff says:

    I live in WA, so have a little bias, but love wine from all over the world. Overall the article was an opinion and reflects a fair issue for WA wine. The only problem I had was saying it would be “weird” to have a WA wine section in a WA restaurant. That is pretty silly. So if it was to make a point with a little hyperbole or something, okay, I just did not get it. If it was a real point, then the argument was very flawed.

  44. There is a lot of California wine out there, I’ve had some pretty amazing stuff, namely my most recent experience at IPNC. I have to admit, I was floored by some of the Pinot coming out of Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills. I also have to admit this experience with California wine has sadly been an anomaly for me. I’m usually underwhelmed. I was recently at the Rhone Ranger tasting in Seattle, the high alcohol wines were overwhelming and when compared side by side with the one smaller producer from Washington, Maison Bleue, there was no comparison. Whether California is a victim of it’s own hubris, stylistic trends or folks drinking the wrong kool-aid I don’t know.

    Washington wines are more terroir driven, the Syrahs and Merlots alone that come out of Washington are done in ways that California can only dream of. Quantity and familiarity do not equate to quality. While Washington still has a lot of work to do to make people aware of the wine being made here, it won’t have to convince people that the wine is good, that’s obvious.

  45. Hi THere Steve,

    Let’s have a dialogue here about your article.

    One of my favorite things about working in the wine industry and interacting with growers and enthusiasts from different regions is coming into contact with the passion each of them has for their region/vineyard/grape/soil/terroir. But just as The World Cup is a celebration of the greatest footballers on the planet, with the title passing each year to the team who is most willing to put their life, brain, soul, mind, body, dreams into their sport, so should these wine exchanges be.

    There is obviously not one “winner” region in the world. There is not even one “winner” wine in the world–or ANY “winner” wines. California’s climate and conditions produce the wines that are characteristic of the region, and Washington’s conditions and climate produce another, and so it goes for every wine producing region in the world. Now, to say that California wine is “better” than any other wine because of its “reputation” is silly, assuming that we are both knowledgeable as to what goes into making wine as opposed to what goes into making a wine’s reputation. That’s like saying McDonald’s is “better” food than Chez Panisse because McDonald’s a wider global distribution and awareness. I’d also like to be clear that I’m not saying Chez Panisse is “better” than McDonald’s either. In fact, I’m challenging each and every reader of this blog to have their own opinion between McDonald’s and Chez Panisse and to do the same with wine. Just like two people may likely vary in their taste for films (one a lover of Javier Bardem, another a John Cussack fan), so it is with wine.

    California wines are completely different than Washington wines–a point you made yourself in acknowledging the complete different grape growing conditions of each region. Furthermore, within California, wines are completely different! And even more, they are changing with each vintage, as goes the process of wine making across the entire world.

    Part of the fun of wine making is discovering how the earth impacts the noble drink, across the planet. The conversation to be had about wine is not which is better, which wine is good and which is bad, but rather how are wines different? What does the sunny growing season of California give the grapes and what does mountainous terrain of Washington provide? How does each terroir influence its wine, and what are the different growers and wine makers doing to nurture it?

    The argument you have suggested here, which wine is “better” is a simple “pissing contest” that educated wine drinkers wouldn’t be interested in entering.

    So let’s agree to talk substance in the future.

    –Danielle

  46. Sure CA sells 10 times more wine than WA, but could that be because CA makes 10 times more wine than WA….hmmm. Also CA has a much wider distribution range than does WA hence forth you sell more on the international market. comparing WA sales to CA sales is just crazy. to give those of you who may not know an idea about how much bigger the CA wine industry is than WA, CA grows more Zinfandel than WA grows grapes. However, does the fact that CA is bigger than WA make their wine better….in my opinion for the most party No. Which is not to say that their aren’t CA producers making some awesome wines. As a whole WA is a smaller industry with smaller wineries and smaller crews to work at smaller wineries which makes the whole thing to me a lot less confusing and keeps the wines more true to the terroir.

  47. Steve-

    I am a Terroirst, so much so that I teach a course entitled: “The Terroir of Washington” at Yakima Valley CC. Business 101 teaches you to know your competition and we use the French Appellation model as the benchmark.

    As you know, the Bordeaux has ~ 254 Appellations, Washington State currently has 12 AVA’s with a couple more in the pipeline. What I strive to teach my students in this course is that Terroir is representative of the uniqueness of place, whether it be the soil, climate, aspect, slope, etc.

    I also teach that one must look at the peolpe, history, culture, foods, etc that make up an area and thus provide fouundation to said Terroir. One can make a strong case that these differences are self evident when comparing Washington to other parts of the world of wine.

    With this as a backdrop, one might reasonably ask so why the debate, i.e. all areas will have differences, eh? Therein lies the difference, summed up by two words: Phylloxera vastatrix.

    Washington State does not have the root louse and grows it’s vines on true root stock (parts of Argentina also). If we wish to perform blind taste tests, we need to compare current Washington wines with pre-Phylloxera French Bordeaux wines to see what is missing, for I contend that only by growing on true rootstock will the true varietal characteristics manifest themselves to fullest.

    So…….I will gladly supply some fine Washington Wines if you (with all your world of wine contacts) find the pre-Phylloxera French wines for said blind taste tests. Now that will end the debate once and for all, no???

    Cheers!

  48. “Washington State does not have the root louse and grows it’s vines on true root stock”

    Washington State showed phylloxera in 1894. There are theories why the louse was confined and did not migrate.

    Plus, there are grafted rootstocks planted in parts of Washington State.

    Gary, I hope you do some research before your next class. If I can find this information here on the East Coast, you surely can find it in Washington State.

  49. steve,

    don’t want to play ‘add on’ given especially that i’m from WA but i hope this doesn’t get lost in translation. three easy comments:

    - you make some very good points and i don’t want to lose track of that. they are simply the ones mostly about public perception and how they are led to different areas not necessarily by the quality of a product but by those with interests in shaping the conversation. not all those are people are being Machiavellian – some people truly believe that one area is better than another. others are obviously biased and that is fine too. the marketplace of ideas wins in the end.

    - myopia is a dangerous thing. history is replete with examples from Edison using AC to electrocute animals (and people) to sell his DC to the obvious examples of European wine aficionados belittling CA wines (heck, any non-European wines) simply due to location and short time in the public eye (né mouth). i would simply caution anyone who sees a product’s quality as a summation of popular opinion. and the volume discrepancy between areas is self-defeating. i doubt anyone would argue that more is better for most products save for electronics and even for them there are diminishing returns with large volume outfits. Sony makes a great stereo but audiophiles get hives when not listening to a Klipsch-level speakers. to each his/her own.

    - lastly and i think this one is the one being stated the most in this thread thankfully – what someone likes is what they like. i’m not saying that the world need devolve into Mac ‘n Cheese and Pizza Rolls just because more people like them but the wine industry, IMHO, is getting dangerously full of people claiming status and quality based not on the product but on someone’s opinion of that product. granted this is necessary for many as the industry needs bell-weathers and marketers to inform the public (increasing the lot for everyone) but in this case their rising tide seems to want to only lift certain boats. taste profiles, age demographics, buying power, a wine’s QPR, even AQPR (Assumed QPR based on marketing gimmicks and promotions) – all these greatly effect a wine’s initial and lasting appeal. pretty sure everyone in this thread has had at least one instance of “well, i’m not crazy about it but the wine guy here loves it so i kinda like it”.

    that all being said it is up to each area’s producers, fans and converts to preach the gospel. no one in WA should expect a buyer or producer in CA to love their product based on reviews alone also. there is some heavy lifting to do yet obviously and everyone needs to do their part.

    just think though – given global warming in 20-30 years WA writers will be talking about how no one has a BC section on their wine list due to the obvious quality difference in their product. time always wins ;)

  50. Shonda Petersen says:

    Mr Heimoff,

    I am disappointed with your determination to belittle a region of quality wines. Being a Southern California housewife who enjoys quality and affordability, I would definitely say I am your average wine drinker and consumer. So very glad my tastes are not influenced by articles that suggest a region of wine is not desirable because you (or those of the likes) have strong comments and assumptions. Though I am not a maker and I do not live in the area of E.W. I have no issues inviting you to a private tasting in my home, of affordable WA wines that I do find locally. Or maybe go out for din in the restaurants neighboring my areas shopping mall, since I do not live in a major metropolis offering bistros and wine bars. I am quite delighted that I am finding WA wines of the distinct quality that I enjoy on their list as well. Perhaps a good quality conversation and glass of reality would widen your narrow view.

    To the WA winemaker. Thank you.

    To the WA wine-drinker. With time, all the room for growth, need for quality, and those who follow trend. Im sure that access to these wines will be vast and there will be a new region “famous all over the world”.

    S. Petersen

    A person who likes wine

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