Northwest Focuses on Wine Profiles

Leaders say regions and individual states need to build up geographic brands

by Peter Mitham
california wines
Speakers at the Vancouver International Wine Festival told trade and media representatives it's key to give consumers the knowledge they demand.
Vancouver, British Columbia—A recurring topic of conversation across the Pacific Northwest remains the need and opportunities to boost the region’s wine profile—collectively, as well as each state’s individual wine industry—with wine consumers.

While the distribution agreement Trinchero Family Estate recently struck with Charles Smith and Charles Bieler for Washington state’s Charles & Charles brand, as well as investments by major wineries in the region’s vineyards and wineries, have been touted as boosting sales opportunities and the profile of the region’s wines, this week’s social media outcry regarding Bloomberg writer John Mariani’s unflattering assessment of Washington state wines highlights the region’s sensitivities.

While acknowledging that Washington winemakers have engaged in a great deal of experimentation in recent years, Mariani observed after a recent visit to the state that the resulting wines are typically, “intense, highly tannic, high-alcohol wines that show well in their youth but often lose brightness and complexity with age.”

The comments triggered hand-wringing and protests that the state has so much more to offer, if only Mariani had tried a broader selection of the state’s wines. (Mariani’s favorites included wines from Seven Hills Winery, JM Cellars and rising star Efeste—as well as Charles Smith’s unpretentious Kung Fu Girl Riesling.)

A case for Oregon
Yet many of the comments posted by defenders of Washington state wines echoed comments at the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium this past February, where the industry discussed the importance of building a brand for the state’s wines.

“Oregon still equals Pinot Noir, and there is more proselytizing to be done,” quipped Christian Miller of California consulting firm Full Glass Research Inc., during the symposium’s opening session (see “Start Spreading the News”). 

Miller argued that ignorance is the key hurdle a region faces in building its reputation. In Oregon’s case, people simply don’t know what is available, despite the rising tide of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Tempranillo challenging Pinot Noir in the state’s vineyards and fermentation tanks.

Veteran winemaker David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyards remarked that Oregon offers complexity—of place, of varieties, of people—a point Ted Baseler of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates reiterated during a luncheon presentation.

Oregon’s strength, Baseler said, is its reputation as a “special place” with a diversity of geographies, varieties, styles and prices.

“It conjures up so many images,” he said, noting that the diversity gives Oregon, “huge advantages over Washington.”

Of course, Washington state wineries would challenge that comment.

Going to Washington
Indeed, the state has been challenged for having so much diversity that it has failed to hitch its wagon to a single variety, a tactic that has won Oregon fame. Yet this same diversity is what Marty Clubb, co-owner of L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla, Wash., notes is also the state’s strength among consumers.

“(Critics) miss the point,” he wrote in a column for Wines & Vines two years ago. “Washington’s strength is its diversity, not its specialization.” (See “Washington's Strengths Are Diversity and Value.”) Chances are Clubb is right; if Oregon, once known for a single variety, is now touting Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, then diversity might be key.

Building a brand
During the Vancouver International Wine Festival at the end of February, a panel of California winemakers told the trade and media representatives that giving consumers the knowledge they demand is key to building a brand.

California, of course, is more than Zinfandel or Chardonnay, let alone the jug wines and California Chablis of yore.

Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards said consumers are demanding wines that reflect where the grapes were grown. Years of improvements in winemaking practice have allowed for technically correct wines, but consumers want to taste the place of origin, not just technical expertise.

Marco DiGiulio of Girard Winery acknowledged that there will always be a place for the sweet fruit bombs that usually form the entry level tier of wines for many drinkers, but they serve to introduce people to the world of wine. The tastes of the core drinkers upon which the industry relies evolves once those tastes are formed.

Wine writers for the major outlets aren’t necessarily doing the industry a service when they write dismissively of these wines, or focus on the top-scoring wines from a given region to the exclusion of wines that the broader run of the market actually drinks.

Ultimately, it leaves a great deal of education—and profile development for a given region—in the hands of wineries and the retailers that stock them.

The result?

“It behooves us to have an education bent to everything we do,” DiGiulio said.

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