Washington State: a hard sell
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.