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Washington State: a hard sell

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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. Yes, Thomas we do have phylloxera, but (as far as I know) it’s confined to concord grapes in a small area of the Yakima Valley. For whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be spreading, so very few people are concerned about it. There are issues with planting grafted vines up here because if we get a hard core winter freeze, you could possibly kill the vinifera scion and have to replant. Own-rooted plants will sprout from the roots. Some (very few) folks, like Christophe Baron at Cayuse are convinced that phylloxera will eventually spread and have planted on rootstock. I think Gary was generalizing – cut him some slack. As far as Walla Walla is concerned, Mr. Morton, I recently showed dozens of slides of vineyards near Walla Walla during a presentation at a terroir conference in northern Italy. I was mobbed by the Europeans after my presentation, all who were curious about this “new” and spectacular wine region. They were obviously very impressed with it’s physical beauty. I’ve been to Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, etc. All of these places have their unique physical beauty – and so does Walla Walla (but without the traffic and pretentiousness of some of those places). And if you want 1st class dining and drinking (again, without the pretentiousness) just visit Saffron and Jimgermanbar.

  2. Ms. Petersen, I don’t believe I ever “belittled a region of quality wines.” Nor did I ever say anything close to “a region of wine is not desirable.” I would ask you to re-read what I wrote. My post was about Washington’s marketing efforts. It said absolutely nothing concerning the quality of Washington wines. I have great respect for Washington wines.

  3. Kevin,

    One possibility that’s been discussed concerning why phylloxera has not spread has to do with the location of the vines–the louse doesn’t travel well through sandy soils in the valley.

    As for cutting, I was hoping to be enlightening Gary. His statement seemed strident as a means toward explaining the quality of WA wine, but it was incorrect and I thought maybe he should know that.

  4. Oded, yes that was quite a non-sequitur, with the second comment not adding to what I was trying to say. At the risk of digging myself in deeper, here’s the context: I had just read on another blog about a Washington State winemaker being called out for his boorish behavior at a public event. Having seen a similar performance (different winemaker) at a recent wine festival on Maui, and with this thread being about how to market to consumers, it occurred to me that public buffoonery is an odd marketing strategy. Of course all our local winemakers are fit and well behaved!

  5. Bill, it’s my understanding that, in order to practice the craft of winemaking in California, all vintners are required to attend classes in good behavior!

  6. Steve,

    I think all CA winemakers now must take a class in the “musical desires of individual grape varieties.”

    It’s a course taught by Clark Smith ;)

  7. Kevin Pogue, thanks for the assist, but as Thomas Pellechia continues in his second comment to me, “it was incorrect and I thought maybe he should know that”, to which I reply, Au Contraire.

    To wit, Angelo Tavenaro-Master Sommelier relates the following story: Angelo was instrumental in establishing the Wine Cellar at Caeser’s Palace in Las Vegas some years ago and included pre-phylloxera French Bordeaux Wines in said collection.

    He had the opportunity to taste this wine upon a high-rollers request and registered the taste in his memory as very different from post phylloxera French Bordeaux wines. He later tasted some Washington Bordeaux style wines and it triggered this memory.

    My point was (and still is) true rooted wine grapes allow for the full expression of that varieties characteristics in a particular Terroir. Because Phylloxera has interupted this picture, save for a few areas in the world, we are denied the ‘Full Monty’.

    Given that Eastern Washington has a climate of warm days/cool nights to promote sugar accumulation, practices Regulated Deficit Irrigation to stress the vines/heighten flavinoid production, and a posseses a soil spectrum unique in the world (glacial flood deposits interspersed with volcanic ash layers), our wines are the epitome of balance in their taste profile and allow for this picture to manifest itself in full glory.

    Bottom line: Run the comparison and even include California Bordeaux style wines for good measure. Me thinks it will awaken the wine world to what can be, eh?

    Cheers!

  8. Gary–

    While this is no criticism of the Wine Enthusiast or that other slick-paper rag that reviews wine, there are reviewers in this world who taste wines from all over the West Coast. Have you submitted your wines to them (meaning me–sorry, could not avoid the plug) to those folks who do taste CA side by side with WA.

    WA is not CA. Some varieties do far better in blind tastings than others, but it is not universally true. And your arguments in favor of WA wines, while interesting, are just that arguments. It reminds of the debates about BioD. My point in those discussions, and to you, is that wines should be understood in tastings, not in discussions. If you think you have a point to make, send your wines around to be experienced by reputable professionals in blind, peer-to-peer tastings.

  9. So Charlie, is WE is a slick paper rag while CGCW is the Bible? I. Don’t. Think. So.

  10. Bill,
    After posting here, I read the hoopla about the WA winemaker who seems to have pissed into the well he drinks from and said to myself: “Maybe that’s what Bill was ttalking about”… Good thing there is never a dull day in our world. Makes me think we should all get with Steve and share some of our own outrageous behavior stories for his upcoming book: “My Cabernet Is bigger than your Cabernet”. I hear he got a $ 3 M advance from Reaming-Spiegel Publications to write it.

  11. Oded, from your lips…as they say.

  12. So…….Charlie Olken:

    Have you tasted pre-Phylloxera French Bordeaux wine and registered the taste difference for future reference as to the true potential of that varietal characteristics?

    Do you have access to said wines for a blind taste test?

    If so, sign me up matey for the panel. Having grown up in Chicago, I have put this same question to Bill Daley who writes the Wine Advisor for the Chicago Tribune, and he concurs it is a most interesting premise to test (but who buys???).

    Cheers!

  13. Gary,

    As for the claims that you make regarding the marvels of Eastern WA wine, go ahead, promote away–that’s what you should do.

    Still, your original contention that WA has been phylloxera free and that there are no grafted vines in the state remains incorrect.

    Someday, some jerk will probably slip and the bug will make its way out of Yakima. If that happens, BEWARE!

  14. Steve writes “So Charlie, is WE is a slick paper rag while CGCW is the Bible? I. Don’t. Think. So.”

    Did you really write that? “Rag” is a euphemism for publication. I use it all the time in regards to my rag. It has no pejorative connotations. It is the third definition for rag in my Webster’s.

    We could, if you want, discuss whose publication is the Bible, but Karen McNeill would get upset.

  15. Gary, Gary, Gary. Your contention is that your WA wines are somehow purer than pure because they are own-rooted, and that purer than purer somehow conflates with better wine. I think we can put that to the test.

    Otherwise, your comments rank as one of the redder herrings to hit these pages in many years. No one has tasted young, pre-Phlloxera claret–so why even ask. Maybe old wine but not young wine. And by the way, I have tasted some of those old wines on visits to France and they were bare reminiscenses of themselves. Curios. Their alcohol levels were around 9.0 and their acidities were off the charts. If you made wine like that today with Cabernet of any stripe, you would be laughed out of the room.

    So, I guess I wont be inviting you down to taste with the panel for my rag, the Bible of Alameda wine publications. But, please, send those wines down and I will put them into a blind tasting with their vintage peers. If they are all you think they are, they will stand out and be admired for their depth, balance and beauty. I am ready. Are you?

  16. I will agree with Charlie about older wines. We (collectively, the writer/collector/merchant community) have over estimated them. These rare expensive wines are acquired tastes, and the reason they’re often described as intellectual is because they don’t really taste so good, so you have to come up with reasons to like them (and justify the high prices).

  17. If I’m not mistaken, the word “rag” assigned to a periodcial came originally from the make up of the paper.

    In the paper business, it paper quality was referenced by its “rag.”

    It’s one of those cases where origin is trumped by usage, or misuse.

  18. Thomas Pellechia, I am NOT alone in my view and offer the following for your perusal to refute your contention I am wrong:

    chicagotribune.com
    Merlot: It’s all in the micro-climates
    Sprawling Columbia Valley boasts diverse conditions, distinctive merlot
    Bill Daley/January 13, 2010

    Telling Mike Januik that his merlot reminds you of cabernet sauvignon won’t exactly break the Washington winemaker’s heart. For Januik, who produces wine under his eponymous label and for Novelty Hill, believes what sets the merlots of the Columbia Valley region apart from others is their sense of place; these wines have a point of view.

    “I think (consumers) think of merlots that are totally fruit forward, soft, without much mid-palate or finish,” said Januik, who has been named one of the world’s “masters of merlot” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. “Our wines have a lot of structure to them.”

    Back in the 1980s when the huge Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) was created, some Washington winemakers thought merlot would be their trump card in the wine game. It has been to a degree, but Columbia Valley is home to a number of well-known grape varieties.

    Gary Werner, communications director for the Washington Wine Commission, said merlot, riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon run “neck to neck” in the Columbia Valley.

    “Given the size of the region and its various microclimates, we can grow just about anything,” he said. “We’re not ones to hang our hat on just one (variety).”

    The Columbia Valley is not the soggy Washington state we all picture in our minds. This region lies east of the Cascade mountains and, in Werner’s words, “is as dry as a bone.” The sun shines 300 days a year, the annual rainfall is only 6 to 10 inches, and the temperatures can fluctuate from winter chill to summer scorcher.

    Early winemakers there were worried about the temperature at first. They planted cold-hardy whites like riesling, recalled Coman Dinn, director of winemaking at Hogue Cellars.

    “Merlot was chosen primarily because it is an earlier ripening grape compared to cabernet,” he said.

    Winemakers began to realize how different climate zones were in the valley. Certain south-facing hillsides were warmer than others, meaning winemakers could plant cabernet and other more cold-sensitive varieties there.

    These micro-climates are the reason there are eight sub-AVAs in the Columbia Valley wine region; each has its own characteristics that favor certain grape varieties.

    But back to merlot. In the book “Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide,” author Paul Gregutt wrote that Washington merlots “start where most others leave off, with ripe flavors of sweet cherries, and then reach well beyond simple and fruity, adding plush, packed, textured flavors.”

    What makes these merlots so good?

    “It’s our northerly location and our limited growing season,” said Dinn. “It doesn’t warm up here until late April. Once it warms up, it warms up fast and the days grow rapidly longer and the grapes catch up. By Oct. 15 the season is over. … This keeps our crop load modest. You need a modest crop load to show character and intensity.”

    Dinn said irrigation is used to control vine growth and berry size. Want more intensity? Go with a smaller grape. And get sunlight in on the grape clusters, he added, to develop color and flavor.

    Januik points to another factor.

    “We are one of the few areas where we grow the vines on their own roots,” Januik said. “Nothing is grafted. That more than anything has had a big impact.”

    Last, Werner said the small scale of Washington’s wine production plays a role.

    “We have to pursue quality,” he said. “To make our mark, we have to let the fruit speak for itself and don’t do a whole lot with it.”

    wdaley@tribune.com

  19. Gary,

    This will get tiring, and you promotion bent is causing you to gloss over the issue.

    Nothing in that story remotely claims that phylloxera was never recorded in WA. It was, in 1894. If you grow Concord in your state, you have phylloxera in your soil.

    While most vineyards are own-root planted, there also are vineyards of vinifera that are from grafts.

    You can promote the glories of own-root wines all you want–I have no problem with that. But as Daniel Moynihan once said, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

  20. Gary, while I’m curious about own-rooted vines, I’m not sure how you can prove they are purer or better. There’s a producer in Santa Ynez, Buttonwood, that has un-grafted vines. No one pays much attention to them, though for my taste the wines do have a good varietal and terroir expression as well as a certain rustic charm. Is this the roots speaking? The location and soil of the vineyard? Or winemaking choices? So many variables! If we are going just on the roots, though, you’d say own rooted vines make less popular wines based on the pricing compared to other wines in the area.

  21. By the way, Steve’s thoughts on the own-rooted Buttonwood Cab Franc are not terribly positive: “Not a bad wine, but green and minty-sweet, like a raspberry sour candy lozenge. The grapes and tannins just didn’t get ripe enough.” From a purely organoleptic standpoint I fully agree with Steve. For my palate, though, I’d disagree with Steve’s interpretation as the acid, tannins and greenness are a refreshing change from the melted, soft and jammy wines you often find.

    But how do the own-rooted vines factor into this picture?

  22. Chile, thanks to its protected location between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, is free of phylloxera and downy mildew; and almost all Chilean wines are made from ungrafted vines.
    But then, is there any scientific evidence that ungrafted vines can enhance typicity and varietal flavor?

  23. Chile and Argentina don’t exactly scream true varietal expression. Unless the tar/rubber in Chilean wines is from the rootstock. Who knows, maybe it is. But other than that SA seems to be known for fruit and ripeness and smooth tannins, especially with Malbec. And spoofulation as well, since most of the wine is made by giant producers as a low-priced commodity.

  24. For my money, I believe the hype concerning own-root is just that.

    What’s worse, however, is for a wine region to take the risk. If phylloxera is around, it may be just a matter of time.

    A lot of people, even in the wine business, don’t think about the fact that Vitis vinifera, own-root or grafted, is not indigenous in North America and so, the species doesn’t really belong here. With that in mind, there is no natural state of purity in this part of the world with anything other than the true native varieties.

  25. There are some seriously good Cabernet Sauvignons in Chile grown on their own roots. Some of them are almost as good as the best from the Napa Valley and Bordeaux, but not many.

  26. For whatever it’s worth, three times in the past few years, McCrea Cellars’ syrahs have finished in the top two positions at the Hospice du Rhone ‘Syrah Shootout,’ including first in one of the three events and thereby possessing the coveted ‘Coat du Rhone.”

    As I would assume you know, the “Shootout” tasting is blind and is an exclusive tasting by the producers themselves. There is no question that Washington State syrah is a world class act. Then there’s Quilceda Creek, for example, and on and on and on.

    However, comparisons of this sort are essentially amusing, but I suppose they do help your readers to avoid sleep apnea. And, God knows, what would we do without yet another wine blog!

    In your opinion, would it be better that the Wine Commission (or whoever chooses to do so) conduct no “junkets” as you define them, and quietly ignore the world in a state of nepotistic Camelot? In the same regard, do you believe that having wine blogs such as yours are any more essential than a trade tour of our State?

    Your “junket” is simply the internet! The only difference is that “interested parties” can sit on their tails rather than to get on a plane and see what’s out there for themselves and develop their own opinions.

    As you and I have never encountered one another (although I’ve been making wine for 23 years), I lived in the Bay Area for 20 years and saw the rise of the California wine industry from it’s infantile state to what it is today. I have the perspective to understand that the young Washington wine industry will gradually gain great momentum, just as California did in the early 70’s when “all the rage” was European wines.

    So Steve, duuuuu, Washington State’s a “hard sell” in California. I’m surprised that as long as you’ve been at this, you’d even bother to waste time on the subject. I also believe that your credibility would be enhanced were you to actually have substantive knowledge about Washington’s geography. Dragging out the ‘ol “rain shadow” and “latitude” stuff is really becoming redundant, Steve.

    Personally, it would be fine with me if there were no California wines on restaurant wine lists in our State. An informed public would soon realize that they would actually be missing nothing from the “Golden State.” Then, we Washington winemakers could live in utter bliss, believing that we are THE superior beings of wine creation.

    Regardless, “OUR sommeliers” up here are bullish on Washington wine. And that’s a message you can take to the bank as well! Personally, I don’t give a damn if my wines are on a California wine list. I’m working too hard to maintain the 200+ McCrea Cellars accounts in Puget Sound alone, as well as over a dozen other states and Japan where one can hardly find Washington wine.

    Now I’m wondering if my “fruit forward” opinion will diminish my scores in the Wine Enthusiast? Sorry Paul, that wasn’t specifically aimed at you, but rather at the entire concept in the first place.

    I guess even winemakers are entitled to their own opinions, eh what? After all, you know the ‘ol line, “turnabout is fair play.”

    “Lions and tigers and bears oh my!”

  27. Dear Doug, ouch! Well, my colleague, Paul Gregutt, sure likes your wines, especially the Syrahs. I’m looking forward to trying them someday.

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