Washington State’s wine industry is poised to take advantage of America’s growing taste for premium wines and share in the $20 billion U.S. wine market. However, much work is still needed to achieve consumer recognition of Washington wines, says an industry leader.
Consider these industry accomplishments: Quilceda Creek Vintners of Snohomish, Washington, received two perfect 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate in 2006 for their 2002 and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; four Washington wines were recently ranked in the Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines for 2006, with Quilceda ranking second and joined by Spring Valley Vineyard, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and Novelty Hill Winery; and the statement by renowned wine critic Pierre-Antoine Rovani in a Robert Parker wine newsletter that "no place on the planet has a brighter future than Washington State."
Though these accolades put Washington wines on the map of the wine trade, they are not enough.
"We need to be taken seriously by wine consumers en masse, not just wine writers," said Ted Baseler, president of the Woodinville, Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The seventh largest wine organization in the world, Ste. Michelle will soon open its newest winery Col Solare on Red Mountain in eastern Washington. This is a partnership between the Washington winery and Piero Antinori, who comes from an Italian winemaking family with 600 years of experience.
Wine surveys show that a disappointingly low number of U.S. consumers are aware that the state produces premium wines, he said. Fewer than half of those surveyed knew that wines are made in Washington, which is lower than consumer recognition of Chilean wines.
"We have a long way to go," Baseler, who serves on the Washington Wine Commission board, said to grape growers and wine producers during a recent industry summit meeting. "We’ve just scratched the surface."
He urged industry members to avoid becoming commodity wine producers, as Australian wine producers have done. The highly successful Yellow Tail wine brand, selling 11 million cases, represents most of Australia’s recent growth in export sales. Baseler noted that retailers are having a harder time selling high-end wines from Australia. "Price and image are connected in wine sales. When people think of Australian wines, they think cheap."
In outlining five keys for the industry’s success, Baseler said that growers and winemakers must focus on maintaining quality, marketing Washington wines in national and international markets, building world-class tourism for the state’s wine regions, increasing education and research efforts, and maintaining and strengthening industry unity. He also noted that the trial marketing campaign conducted last spring by the Wine Commission in Tampa, Florida, proved that a coordinated industry effort could "move the needle" in sales. Washington wine sales in the Florida test market increased by 45 percent during the marketing campaign. "We need to take the Tampa experiment and replicate it across the country," Baseler said, suggesting that a branding program be conducted in up to eight major markets.
International markets are also important to the health of the industry as they open the doors for future sales and help diversify markets.
Wine tourism is an important issue because it brings dollars to the state’s economy and creates goodwill between government and industry.
While he described the industry’s research and education component supported by Washington State University and community colleges as a "good, solid program," he said that it is not enough. Cornell University gets ten times as much federal funding for research, and more effort is needed to seek federal funds as well as bolster state and industry funding.
Baseler also urged growers and producers to maintain the strong cooperation and unity within the industry. "We need to be sure that we don’t put out the light for cooperation."
He urged industry members to think beyond themselves and support issues that may help others, especially if there isn’t a negative impact on their own bottom line.
For example, Chardonnay wines are still the largest growing varietal category in the United States. "If you don’t produce Chardonnay, but the Wine Commission wants to promote Chardonnay wines, it is still good for the industry, so don’t fight it," he said. "If it helps the majority or the minority and doesn’t hurt you, then don’t fight it."
Even with challenges facing the industry, it’s a great time to be in Washington and in the U.S. wine business, Baseler said. "It’s not only the perfect climate for wine in Washington but also the perfect time."