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Washington Wines Seek Identity

Trade members say quality is there, but more value needed to add appeal

by Peter Mitham
taste washington
Moderator Chris Stone (at podium) directs a question to Ryan Allison, owner of Cellar 46, Mercer Island, Wash., as Sandy Block, Legal Seafoods, Boston; Peter Dow, owner of Cavatappi Distribuzione, Seattle; Scott Larsen, partner at Maverick Wine Co., Chaicago; Erik Segelbaum, wine director/manager at Daniel’s Broiler, Lake Union, Wash., listen.
Seattle, Wash.—Washington state is moving in the right direction when it comes to delivering good-value wine, but it’s hobbled by lower cost versions of some hot varieties from producers around the world. A panel of distributors, retailers and restaurateurs kicked off Taste Washington! at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center on the Seattle Waterfront this past weekend with a frank conversation about the role of Washington state wines on the national stage.

“Generally speaking, I feel you’re moving in the right direction,” observed Scott Larsen, partner in Chicago’s Maverick Wine Co. But if Pinot Noir has defined Oregon, Larsen said many buyers are unable to name a single grape variety that defines Washington wine.

The diversity of varieties the state can produce is exceptional, but when it comes to selling the state to drinkers, Larsen said this abundance has potential to be a stumbling block. “I don’t know if it helps or hurts, but if I had my choice, I’d say it hurts,” he told the panel and assembled audience of approximately 60 industry and media representatives.

One factor helping to sell Washington wine during the past two years has been the quest for value. But if last fall’s two-month “World-Class Wine in Your Own Backyard” promotion helped raise awareness of what is available in-state (see “Drink Washington Wines, Campaign Suggests”) the battle for awareness further afield has been dogged by the state’s lingering lack of identity.

“Consumers are not really coming looking for Washington wines,” said Sandy Block of Legal Seafoods, a Boston restaurant. “They’re looking for great wine, they don’t really care where it’s from.…It’s what’s in the glass, and does it seem reasonable” in price.

While many wineries in Washington have launched second labels to move juice and capture bargain-hunting buyers, Peter Dow, owner of Seattle’s Cavatappi Distribuzione, doesn’t believe enough wineries are producing wines at the $15 per bottle wholesale price that wineries in parts of France and Italy can hit.

“I can’t get the product from Washington to deliver the quality at that price- point,” he said early in the discussion. He reiterated during the question-and-answer period that followed: “We don’t need another $25, $30 Washington Cab, let alone Chardonnay.”

Perception of value is key

So what will sell high-quality Washington wines to value-oriented consumers with myriad choices before them?

Blunt appeal, if the so-called Millennials who are behind the growth in U.S. wine consumption are any indication.

“The Millennials don’t care,” said Block, who has been selling wine out of kegs to willing buyers. “It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing, a cool thing.” The popularity of Grenache, which was the focus of a seminar at Taste Washington! and will also headline a tasting later this week at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, is one example.

Several panelists noted that the grape—a favorite of many wine journalists (see “Gimme Garnacha Wines”), makes a drinkable wine that suits Millennials, who have been drivers of the grape’s resurgence. They’ve introduced it to friends, who have been seduced by it, too—and are pleased with its pricing.

Can wineries in Washington tap into the enthusiasm? Again, it’s a question of value—a point Dow made at the close of the seminar. “You have to over-deliver for the price; that’s what gets people excited.”

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