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01.11.2010  
 

Oregon Wineries Hit the Road

Willamette Valley vintners will introduce themselves -- and their Pinot Noir -- to Seattle neighbors

 
by Peter Mitham
 
 
Willamette Valley Seattle wine trip
 
McMinnville, Ore. -- Willamette Valley wineries are looking beyond mixed reviews of the ’07 vintage and tough economic times by taking a road trip to Seattle designed to boost consumer awareness. The March 11 event will see approximately 50 wineries from the Willamette Valley gather at Herban Feast in Seattle, in what’s being billed alternately as a “get to know your neighbors” event or “neighborhood bash.”

“We’re really looking for a direct-to-consumer relationship-building exercise here, more than anything else, because Seattle is so close to us,” explained Amy Wesselman of Westrey Wine Co. in McMinnville. The 5,600-case winery only opens to the public twice per year, so the Seattle event is a good way to meet consumers as well as the trade. “We’ll be able to develop relationships with people at the restaurants and wine stores that we’re already doing business with, but also develop some new contacts.”

The outreach is important in a market where conditions have boosted direct-to-consumer sales and rain at harvest led to a difficult vintage for some wineries.

“A lot more of us are focusing more efforts on direct sales than ever before,” said Annie Shull, proprietor of Raptor Ridge Winery in Carlton, Ore. “It’s an interesting combination you have happening here: You have the recession, you have a tough vintage, and you have this huge birth of social media, and so people tend to be really looking at the feedback that we’re getting in blogs and on Facebook and Twitter of what people are thinking about the wines. It’s not just the wine reviewers you’re hearing from, it’s the actual customers as well.”

This has helped wineries get closer to customers, Shull told Wines & Vines, and the March event in Seattle will be a time to celebrate some of those connections with what she bills, “a big neighborhood bash for our neighbors to the north.” Raptor Ridge also has been seeking new markets, a move that has helped it move most of its 2007 vintage despite doubling production that year to approximately 6,700 cases. “We’re almost sold out of our 2007, so even though we doubled it, it hasn’t taken us twice as long to sell it,” Shull said.

A key challenge Willamette wineries face is lack of awareness of what Oregon has to offer, a point underlined at last year’s Oregon Wine Industry Symposium, which highlighted the need for Oregon wineries to secure new markets. “People don’t even know sometimes that there’s wine country (in Oregon),” Shull said. “(The Seattle event) is just one of the many efforts we’re making to make sure our neighbors all know that we’re here and we’re fun to visit.”

There’s also need for a greater awareness of the styles of Pinot Noir that Oregon will produce in any given year. Oregon Pinot Camp has been one effective means of boosting awareness among the trade, but Maria Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. Winery in McMinnville believes the more elegant wines of the 2007 vintage were a shock to people who had come to expect fine wines straight out the chute from Oregon producers.

“(2007) produced wines similar to what we think of as the more elegant and feminine and really traditional Oregon Pinot Noirs -- the Pinot Noirs that put Oregon on the map,” she said. “They weren’t necessarily lush and gorgeous right out of the chute in the way, for instance, that the ’08s will be. And so I think that they were susceptible to a lot of negative press that wasn’t really justified.”

Case in point: She’s not taking much from the 2007 vintage to Seattle, because it is mostly sold out. She’ll be taking the 2008 vintage of R. Stuart’s basic Big Fire Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and some 2007 Autograph Pinot Noir, a reserve-level wine that she might actually pour first, as it’s more elegant than the complex, leathery, earthy 2008 with rich, dark fruit.

Stuart, like many winemakers, believes the 2007 vintage wasn’t bad, but merely sideswiped by a unique combination of factors that winemakers will be able to explain directly to the trade and consumers, especially with the 2008 vintage on hand.

“It was a three-pronged fork with the '07 vintage -- you had the economy collapsing just as it was being released, you had the early critics absolutely panning the vintage for Oregon... then you have a generation of consumers who perhaps have never tasted those qualities in an Oregon wine,” she said.

David Paige, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard in Newton, agreed. Talking to Wines & Vines in late 2007, after a harvest many deemed difficult, Paige felt the vintage had hope but would catch some winemakers out because of the late-season rains that swelled the fruit and resulted in diluted must.

“I’ve read comments already about this harvest in Oregon that make it sound like people are ready to write an epitaph for the vintage,” Paige said at the time. “But personally, having seen 800 tons of (grapes) in this place this year, there wasn’t nearly enough damaged fruit out of that 800 tons to have a negative view of things.…I think there’s going to be plenty of perfectly good wine made from this vintage.”

The recession hit as the 2007 vintage was released, complicating matters. In retrospect, Paige isn’t sure any amount of good publicity would have made any vintage an easy sell, given the overarching economic conditions that saw consumers trading down in wine purchases. “I’m kind of glad the ’08s are just starting to come out right now, and people are at least starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel on the economy,” he said.

When he’s attended consumer tastings, Paige has noted that people are willing to give the 2007 wines a taste regardless of what reviewers have written -- if they’re even aware of what was said. “ I think that we all would have been struggling no matter what we would have come out with at that time,” he said. “I hope that the combination of a vintage that everybody has already touted and some light at the end of the tunnel as far as the economy goes … gets people excited about buying Pinot Noir again.
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