With the startling announcement that Washington’s biggest producer was cutting grape purchases by half, the pundits weighed in with various theories about why things have reached such dire straits. One prevalent theory is that unlike Oregon (known around the world for great Pinot Noir) and Napa (known across the universe for remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon), Washington wines have always lacked a clear and focused signature variety. In other words, for wine buyers, there’s no easy handle on Washington wine.
This is not a new challenge. In the first chapter of the first edition of my “Washington Wines & Wineries” (published in 2007) I explored the post-Prohibition history of the industry and concluded with these thoughts: “As Washington stakes its claim to be recognized with other world-class wine regions, accolades and criticism from the press are coming in roughly equal proportion. This is to be expected and, on balance, is quite healthy. The challenges that face the state’s vintners are in many respects exactly the same as those that face any emerging wine region, whether in Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, the Canadian Okanagan, or, for that matter, the south of France.
“Winning the hometown fans is just the beginning. Washington must consistently define and explain itself to the rest of the world. Given that the state has no single ‘signature’ wine or grape, it must consistently demonstrate quality and value across the board. It must take better advantage of the natural beauty and unjaded populace that make visiting wine country in this state such a pleasure. It must overcome the archaic, confusing, and expensive tangle of laws that regulate the distribution and sale of wine here and in every other state in the country. To put it bluntly, it must live up to its shiny new motto [at the time]: ‘The Perfect Climate for Wine’.”
In retrospect that ‘Perfect Climate’ slogan still makes a lot more sense than the current WAugust campaign which seems designed to do nothing more than encourage wineries to discount their products for a month. As far as the rest of my suggestions have progressed, most show improvement. Wine tourism has grown significantly, particularly in high profile destinations such as Woodinville and Walla Walla. The state is no longer managing a clogged pipeline for wine distribution, and there are reasonably liberal laws allowing wineries and some retailers to ship directly to consumers both in-state and out-of-state (where permitted). The climate may or may not be perfect, but it’s certainly good, sometimes great, and the vast improvements in vineyard management among other things have gone a long way towards compensating (so far) for climate change.
What has not changed? There is still no signature grape providing a clear distinction (definition?) for Washington wines; a handle that consumers and trade who are not located in the Pacific Northwest want and need.
That said, the disadvantages of being tied to a single variety are also significant. For quite awhile being known exclusively for its Pinot Noir meant that Oregon wineries that did not produce Pinot Noir were at a serious disadvantage. Some truly outstanding Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Syrah and Viognier is made in the Rogue Valley. Abacela in the Umpqua Valley pioneered Tempranillo on the West Coast. But as often as note their customers asked for Pinot Noir.
Back in Washington; at various times efforts spearheaded by Allen Shoup at Chateau Ste. Michelle tried to make Riesling a signature grape. Merlot was another attempt. Cabernet Sauvignon would seem logical, but Napa has already locked that down. Syrah? As a varietal wine Syrah sales have been in a serious slump, and there just isn’t all that much made in Washington. Chardonnay? You’re towing the ABC crowd up a steep hill.
On vacation this week I visited a couple of wine shops on Martha’s Vineyard and looked to see what they carried from Washington. Almost nothing. One shop had a Charles & Charles Cabernet, and the proprietor said that the sales person for that wine had “plastered the walls with stickers.”
The second shop had a better selection of everything, from inexpensive table wines all the way up to a $1000 Bouchard Montrachet. Nothing from Washington.
What they did have to my surprise was a Brittan Chardonnay, a white and a rosé Big Salt from Ovum and a pair of orange wines from Brianne Day. Under the radar, high quality Oregon wines that are not Pinot Noir, and not from big volume producers. Which suggests that Oregon is succeeding in getting a non-Pinot foothold once Pinot has opened the door. Other than Charles & Charles, who is opening doors for Washington? What grape or blends might separate Washington from the pack of wannabe’s outside of the home turf?
Washington vintners make great blends. Bordeaux style blends in particular are exceptional. Though I’m generally opposed to using an old world template for a new world wine producer, there may be some traction promoting Washington as perfectly positioned to make New World Bordeaux blends. Or blends in general. How about ‘Washington Wine – Trending with Blending!’