Last week marked the kickoff of a month-long Washington wine promotion under the rubric WAugust. My thoughts about the name aside, such events, whether it’s World Donut Day or Washington Wine Month, have become so commonplace that it’s difficult to know what if any positive impact on sales they achieve. Yes there are all kinds of discounts sparking quick sales, but discounted wines can do as much damage as good to a winery’s long-term sales and a region’s overall reputation for quality.
WAugust has also suffered from the extremely unfortunate timing of the revelation – also in the past couple of weeks – that the state’s largest winery – Ste. Michelle Wine Estates – is in the process of cancelling 40% of its long-term grape contracts (50% if you go back a few years). This has been called by more than one pundit a devastating blow.
I don’t think that is an exaggeration. For decades SMWE was the major force in producing, promoting and marketing the Washington brand. In tough times the winery, under the leadership of the late Allen Shoup and his successor Ted Baseler, lent essential support to growers and wineries both large and small. In good times they sponsored such globally important events as the semi-annual Riesling Rendezvous. With the sale of the wine business to an east coast investment firm two years ago, the writing was on the wall that things were about to change. There has already been a bit of a revolving door in top-level local management, sales of at least one marquee property, significant bottom line losses and now this announcement that roughly half of the contracted vineyard acreage from just six years ago will be/has already been jettisoned.
From my perspective, as one who has banged the drum for Washington wines and Ste. Michelle in particular over several decades, none of this is surprising. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball to see what’s next, but it doesn’t feel good. For small growers and producers it’s time to batten down the hatches.