Washington has Pinot envy. The state’s vintners look across the Columbia River at Oregon and see a neighbor that has established a firm connection with wine drinkers. Oregon equals PInot Noir. And Pinot Noir is popular. Easy.
The Washington guys wish they could find an identity that wine drinkers could latch onto as easily. They don’t have the soil or climate to make Pinot Noir, and they are quite happy to leave that variety, so fickle to grow and make well, to the Oregonians. But they pine for an easy-to-understand hook to make their wines simpler to market. The topic came up again and again last week as I visited veteran vintners and bright lights of the new wave in the state.
“Every vintner who comes here from Europe tells us the same thing,” sighs Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the state’s largest wine company. “Most of their regions are known for one or two grape varieties, so they tell us to get rid of some of our varieties so we can focus on one or two.”
And that certainly works for most places. In Europe, the identities are easy: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Mosel. Even in the New World, New Zealand made its reputation on Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley for Cabernet, Australia for Shiraz, Oregon for Pinot Noir. (That’s also a double-edged sword; vintners in all those places wish people would pay attention to their other wines, which can be just as good.)
And indeed, Ste. Michelle has joint ventures with European vintners who have done just that. Ernst Loosen makes a Riesling in Washington called Eroica. Piero Antinori focuses on a Cabernet Sauvignon blend at Col Solare.
But that just underlines how well the state does with lots of varieties. Among red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and blends involving some or all of the Bordeaux varieties do exceptionally well. Washington may be the best place in America for Syrah. Riesling excels and, in fact, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates makes and sells more Riesling than any other winery in the world. Chardonnay can be hot stuff.
Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Grenache, Sangiovese and even Tempranillo make good wines that have their fans, even if they don’t rise to such a high level. And why should any vintner discard varieties that make outstanding wine, or sell well, especially when those wines have distinctive characteristics that set them apart? It’s called terroir, and Washington has it.
I think I have the answer to what the state should do to promote itself. Don’t focus on a single grape at the expense of the others. Home in on the one characteristic that runs through most if not all of the wines. Long, sunny growing seasons produce bright fruit flavors, moderate temperatures develop less alcohol than do comparable wines in California, and cool desert nights retain lively acidity.
In short, Washington wines are refreshing. Promote “refreshing.”
“Our other problem is the name,” Baseler adds. “Thirty years ago I was making a presentation to consumers in New York and when I was finished the first question was which side of the Potomac we grew the grapes. It’s better now, but there’s still confusion over which Washington we’re talking about.”
That doesn’t matter if you focus on how refreshing the wines can be. When most people picture the state of Washington they think of rainy Seattle, the broad Puget Sound, snow-capped Mt. Rainier, evergreen trees—all of which are cool, clean images. Refreshing. It fits.
Jason Endsley — Houston, TX — August 9, 2010 3:23pm ET
Dave Reuther — Deerfield, Illinois — August 9, 2010 4:13pm ET
Mace D Howell Iii — fremont,ca,usa — August 9, 2010 5:16pm ET
David Peters — Mission Viejo, CA — August 9, 2010 6:22pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — August 9, 2010 9:58pm ET
Sharon Boorstin — Santa Monica — August 10, 2010 3:25pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — August 10, 2010 3:32pm ET
Lowry Sweney — Los Angeles, CA — September 3, 2010 4:41pm ET
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