A talk with Allen Shoup
Former Ste. Michelle CEO Allen Shoup says clonal research is critical for the Washington wine industry.
For 17 years, as chief executive officer of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Allen Shoup was at the forefront of the Washington wine industry. During his tenure, the company represented around 70 percent of the Washington State wine industry.
When Shoup joined Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1979, he was charged with product development. By the time he became chief executive officer in 1983, he was focused on building the company's name and stature. The company grew to include Columbia Crest, Domaine Ste. Michelle, and Snoqualmie Winery, along with Chateau Ste. Michelle. Washington State's stature in the winemaking world grew right along with it. Its size, together with the deep pockets of its parent, United States Tobacco, meant that it shouldered the burden of financing the industry's growth, as well as the research that helped fuel it.
Ste. Michelle worked closely with Washington State University in areas like diseases and canopy management. But one area they didn't address was clonal research.
"That idea seemed like it was going to be generations away," Shoup said as a panelist at the 2007 Executive Wine Summit organized by MFK Research. "The truth is, in ten years we could have done really effective clonal research and known which clones would actually be the right ones to plant in the right areas."
Today, Shoup heads his own venture, Long Shadows Vintners, collaborating with some of the world's most highly acclaimed winemakers to showcase the best the Columbia Valley has to offer.
The Long Shadows structure reflects a model Shoup molded at Ste. Michelle, when he partnered with Dr. Ernst Loosen of Germany to create Ste. Michelle's Eroica Riesling wine, and with Tuscany's Piero Antinori to create the Col Solare Winery. Long Shadows is a coterie of wineries located in the Columbia Valley. Each of the seven wineries is individually owned and managed as a separate partnership.
The Good Fruit Grower talked with Shoup about the need for a focused research program on clones in Washington, and some of the implications such a program would hold for the state's wine industry.
Q. What is the biggest accomplishment the Washington industry has seen during four decades of rapid growth?
A. The biggest accomplishment is one that none of us can take credit for. We knew we could produce wine, and we felt correctly that the industry would grow, but nobody knew then that we would be able to grow grapes of the quality that we've since discovered, or that we can make wines on a world scale.
Q. During those decades of steep growth, what did the state miss by not doing clonal research?
A. I think what we've missed is immeasurable. I'll give you an analogy. A number of years ago, Piero Antinori started doing clonal research on Sangiovese in Tuscany. There were 33 predominant clones of Sangiovese. They planted all the clones in controlled environments and made wines of each of them. And they found, of the 33 clones, only five were producing good wine, with the structure and complexity and richness of the great Sangiovese flavors. With that, they went further, and pulled in Cabernet and Merlot, grapes which had had a little bit of clonal research from France, and came up with what came to be known as super Tuscans. No one can argue that without the super Tuscans, Tuscany today would still be Chianti.
Q. Where was Washington research focused during the 1980s and 1990s? Were there other concerns more pressing than clones?
A. The early work was being done on things that scared us like winter hardiness, and we spent a huge amount of money on leaf wilt. We also did a lot of work on water management. WSU was experimenting on things like canopies, but we didn't do clonal research of any significance. Today, we have a number of individual growers, along with WSU, who are doing some clonal work. But, to my knowledge, nobody has built a master grid and really organized the data. I don't think anyone is really doing clonal research the way it needs to be done, with different clones on one site, where all the variables are constant. We rely a lot on research from California, but we have some huge differences from California. The most obvious one is that their clones don't grow on their own rootstock, they're all grafted. And their vines don't go into winter dormancy like ours do. There are enough variables that are different that we certainly need to do our own research. I didn't know enough when I became the head of Chateau Ste. Michelle to know the importance of this.
Q. But Washington is recognized as a leading source of high quality, premium wines. How important is clonal research if we have come so far without it?
A. We are clearly competing very, very successfully on the world stage right now. Many people from outside the region say that we're the most exciting thing on the cultural map. If we're doing this without the research, it's very exciting to think what we could do if we had it.
Q. Can the industry benefit from the limited research being conducted by individuals around the state?
A. Yes, I think so. Ste. Michelle did the lion's share of all the research with WSU, and anything we ever did was always shared with everyone else. We never did any research proprietarily, because we saw ourselves as part of the Washington wine industry. We helped the industry a lot with the things we did, but only as much as any one of those wineries that were getting national and international recognition were doing for us. It was a very symbiotic relationship, and it still is. For that reason, sharing that kind of information is good for all of us. We all feel that anything that would enrich the knowledge base of the industry would be good for all of us.
Q. Is it necessary at this point to initiate a statewide program in clonal research?
A. I think it's a matter of everybody saying this is our next biggest priority. It's going to have to compete with many things, like water management and site selection that are still important for all of us, but most people would agree that clonal research is very high up on their list, by the very fact that people are doing it.
Q. What would such a program look like?
A. It needs to be put on a master grid with all the variables in one place where they're easily seen. It would also be valuable to select a site and experiment. In the past, we learned that certain varieties like Lemberger would do well here, although it really didn't do much for the state because there wasn't a demand for it. But that's changed as I speak, too, with all the interest in what used to be considered very obscure wines like Tempranillo or Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. That's exciting.
Q. Among all the factors that make up a good vineyard – site, soil, climate – how important is the right clone?
A. It's certainly up there in the top five or six. Until we do the research, we won't know. One of the things we know is that in other parts of the world, they've gotten better. France has had hundreds of years to figure it out. My guess is that we might find certain varieties are far more affected by clonal variables in this environment than others. We haven't done much clonal research on Merlot or Syrah, but we're already among the best in producing those varieties. Did we get lucky, or do we simply have an environment that is amenable to most clones? I don't know. But given the experiment that Antinori went through with Sangiovese, it just makes sense to study it.
Q. In your opinion, are there varieties that Washington growers should be planting?
A. There's a lot of work going on with Pinot Noir up in the Chelan area, which I think is very, very exciting. Equally exciting are all the plantings of Sangiovese. I don't think any of us have had success with Nebbiolo, and there are the Rhone varieties. That's just the beginning.
Q. Do you see blends taking on more prominence, as they do in European wines?
A. I read more and more wine critics getting excited about single vineyard wines, and believing somehow it's a truer expression or something. That seems strange to me. If you take Cabernet from three different microclimates, each of them a different style Cabernet, you'll get a more complex wine than if you take it all from one site. The wine critics seem to be interested in single vineyard and single variety, but the reality is that people are always going to like complex wines more than simple wines.