19 September 2007

Walla welcome

[vineyard]
Let's start off gently, shall we? I'll leave the harsh criticism for another day. Though I assure you: it will come.

I had a meeting the other day -- brief, over water and coffee rather than wine -- with two representatives from the Washington Wine Commission. Boston and environs are one of their target markets for expansion, and they wanted to do a little information exchange...get their message to me, and let me give them some local knowledge of the market and a few of the key players within it.

Personally, even though I have fairly strong Europhilic tendencies when it comes to wine, I welcome the effort. Other than the mass-market stuff brought in by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and the like, we don't see much Washington wine here. Oregon does better, with a fair sampling of the lowbrow and the more interesting stuff on the shelves (or allocated in the back room), and of course through sheer size and inertia California does the best, but for whatever reason, we don't see much (in fact, very close to any) of the higher-quality, artisanal stuff. That's a shame.

On the other hand, I wish them luck, because it's going to be a tough sell. Which, it's worth noting, I told them as clearly as possible. Boston is, itself, a very Europe-facing wine market, both figuratively and literally. We welcome some measure of European obscurity -- this is, at least the last I've heard, still the number one domestic market for Alsace, we've long had a very solid Portuguese underground, and there's not quite so much focus on Tuscany on Italian shelves as there is pretty much everywhere else -- but domestics are a tougher sell.

It's not just Europhilia, though. Our asinine anti-shipping laws, bought and paid for by the greedy wholesalers (oh, now just watch the invitations to their tastings roll in), keep a lot of the cultier, mailing-list-only wines completely out of the market...at least for those unable or unwilling to use one of the usual but time-consuming work-arounds. So if the wines aren't on the shelves and aren't in the private cellars of wine geeks, it's hard to build up much of a market interest in them. And with the rapid contraction of distributors in this market, there are fewer potential buyers than ever; the small, focused distributors tend to have almost exclusively European portfolios.

Washington will have to be careful, too. The big, ripe, woody reds that so impress certain critics will not be a showstopping success here (not that they need to be; they sell very well without our help). Leaner, more...well, let's be honest: more "Old World" wines will do better. And perhaps the best option of all is to push non-chardonnay whites. Riesling, in the form of "Eroica," has done well (though note that it has done so primarily through its German connection; there's that Europhilia again), and other rieslings could be successful. Sémillon is a difficult grape, but there's potential for success there as well. Among the reds, it seems to me that syrah (which is better known for a general aversity to oak, a fact I'd hope Washington state winemakers embrace) would do better than cabs and merlots, but I'm not an expert in such things. I was given a cabernet franc to taste (haven't yet), so maybe there's potential there. And, of course, there's always interest in an expansion of the varietal palette past the handful of big-name grapes...grapes that far too many places produce already. Washington may indeed have something unique to say with, for example, a cab/merlot blend, but there'll be an extra burden of convincing to sell it in this market.

Overall, and as always, the wines will succeed or fail on their merits and their pricing. But the key will be to get them in front of consumers in the first place. Alsace succeeds because certain key figures visit to push their wines, year after year. I'd expect to see Washington put on a lower-end push at next year's Boston Wine Expo, and then bring the better stuff to a dinner at the Boston Wine Festival. Perhaps Nantucket. I'd expect to see them in the market, collectively or individually, showing the wines to trade and press at other times of the year (the frenzy around the previous two events, when everyone is in the market and wants the same fifty tasters' attention, is hard to cut through).

As for that cabernet franc, I'll report back as soon as possible, over on oenoLog.

1 comment:

Ken Sternberg said...

As for Ch. St. Michelle, et al, I have two big problems writing about any of their wines. First, they are not very good. Second, the company is owned by American Tobacco, so every bottle of wine sold profits a corporation that deals in death. I realize alcohol isn't health food, either, but at least it's a lot slower than cigarettes.

Over the years I've tasted a small number of Washington wines I thought were very good. There are some small scale producers with the right idea. But I wonder how the Washington Wine Commission's grand plan will affect (brush aside, more likely) these people.