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We've built it, but will they come?
[November/December 1999]

Every 18 days, the momentum of Northwest wine gains a little more speed.

That's on average how often a winery is born in Washington state these days, but however incredible that statistic may be, it is only one of many indications that the new millennium offers a promising future for wine lovers. With more wineries, better wines, and a diverse selection of the world's vinous output filling shops and restaurants, we have never had more opportunities to relax and pop a cork. But as industry professionals consider the groundwork they have helped to lay over the last decade or so, some wonder how many consumers are actually taking advantage of it.

Over the last 10-15 years, the growth of the Northwest wine industry has been nothing short of explosive. In Oregon, the number of wineries has doubled since 1989 from 71 to 134, and the acreage planted to vines has followed suit, nearly doubling to 9000. In Washington, the numbers are even more spectacular: in the past ten years, the number of wineries has more than doubled to 135; in Walla Walla, the current 9 will be joined by 16 more by the new year. Steve Burns of the Washington Wine Commission isn't overstating it when he says, "it's an unbelievable time up here."

On the other side of the counter, consumers are also enjoying unprecedented access to the world's wines, and not just those from the Northwest. Judging by the number of Northwest wine shops and specialty grocers' expanding wine sections, it would appear that wine lovers aren't sitting idly by, either. "Considering the population we have, [the wine scene] is very vibrant," says Blake Holaday of Pete's in Seattle.

At least in Portland, a telling indicator species may be Friday night tastings, in which flights of wines are served in an informal context for $10-15. "Some people come in to be social, but many others come by to see what's going on with the wines," says Sandy Thompson of Mt. Tabor Fine Wines in Portland. "If people weren't interested, tastings would be dead."

Going out for a glass of wine is also more likely to be rewarded. While the upscale Vina in Seattle's trendy Belltown area did close recently for lack of business, others like the more laid back Bungalow Wine Bar across town or Portland's Blue Tango are thriving. Deeper wine lists and more wines by the glass also welcome wine lovers in an increasing number of Northwest restaurants, and they are more likely to be served in glassware which heightens the winedrinking experience. "People are more educated, and they have more specific demands, how they want it served and what it costs," says Andy Calman, wine steward at Higgins Restaurant in Portland.

Why the boom times for wine and wine lovers? First and foremost, observers point to the thriving U.S. economy, if not to the supposed plethora of Microsoft millionaires spending their stock options. "People are willing to spend more money on wine," says Tom Hedges of Hedges Vineyards. "We held our Red Mountain Reserve at $24 a bottle for years, but when we raised our prices, we couldn't keep it in stock."

Many also highlight 60 Minutes' groundbreaking report on the French Paradox -- that is, how the French eat rich food, smoke, sit around and still live longer than Americans because they drink wine. Nearly ten years old, the report still reverberates in sales because it elevated wine above a debate almost exclusively focused on the social problems of alcohol.

But deep pockets and potential health benefits alone wouldn't have fanned this phenomenal growth if the wines weren't ultimately worth it. For their part, Northwest wineries believe they have made impressive gains, both in the cellar and in the vineyard. "Oregon and Washington really have their act together viticulturally," says David Lett of Oregon's Eyrie Vineyards, "more than our neighbors to the south. A lot of what's been invented here has been transferred to California, like leaf pulling and trellising techniques. California is 30 years behind us viticulturally."

"People are learning how to do things better," confirms Peter Rosback of Oregon's Sineann Winery. "Better crop loads, better equipment, newer and better oaks, and better winemaking. There's been a racheting up of quality on everybody's part as competition improves."

Across the Columbia, the story may be even more dramatic. "Washington started out as a low cost producer of fruity reislings," explains Hedges, "and now it's transitioned to a high-end producer of Bordeaux blends. Washington is starting to be known as a great producer of Merlot."

"Once they find the right spots and then penetrate the market consciousness, eastern Washington will eclipse California over the next 100 years," adds Rosback, who makes wines with grapes from all over Washington and Oregon. "The surface hasn't even been scratched."

"We're finally getting enough wineries making enough quality wines that we're showing up on wine lists all around the country," says Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge. "For the last 5 years, Washington has sold everything it can produce, so we're expanding. If I sound enthusiastic, I am."

That kind of enthusiasm has translated into higher prices for wines from all over the Northwest, which is certainly good news for producers. In fact, many winemakers see the Northwest's most appropriate role as a high-end producer, leaving less expensive wines to California. As voluminous vineyard plantings come on line around the world over the next 5 years, it may be a better business decision, too. "There's a lot of wine at the lower price levels," explains Cristine Pascal of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board, "but the demand for higher quality wines continues to grow."

Of course, higher prices tend to keep those wines out of the hands of most everyday consumers, and that could have long term consequences even if the economy holds: without offering entry-level wines, it may be difficult to bring new consumers on board. "Oregon pinots were in the top 3 hottest sections in my store in past years," says Thompson. "Now it's died off. People are [ticked] off at wine prices. Washington syrahs show a lot of potential, but they're all over $20. There's no $9.99 version to get the public interested."

"There's a strong tendency in Northwest wines to price themselves out of the market," agrees Dave Holstrom, wine director for the Heathman Group in Portland. "It's difficult to find things that are good that wholesale for less than $15. There are a lot of wines out there not worth the money."

Of particular concern is the mysterious Generation X, which most (but not all) observers agree has been resistant to the wine message thus far. "In the early 90s, the 60 Minutes presentation got an older generation drinking wine," Hedges says. "The younger generation in their 20s has yet to try wine."

"We're selling more wine, but to the same 4%," says Dan McCarthy of McCarthy & Schiering wine merchants in Seattle. "The wine industry hasn't really reached out to new consumers like the dairy industry did with its ‘Got milk?' campaign."

That's not to say that lower-priced, varietally diverse wines from around the world aren't available for the taking throughout the Northwest. Indeed, many merchants and wine stewards take special pride in the diverse selection they offer wine lovers. The problem is getting consumers to take advantage of it in the appropriate context of wine: a meal.

"Right now," Thompson argues, "I get the feeling that people in the Northwest want wine to be the meal, a huge, extracted, oaky fruit bomb, and these don't go well with food."

"In these headhunter days of wines where people are reading the Wine Spectator," Calman says, "someone will come in and say they want a Turley [Zinfandel] with a filet of sole, no matter how inappropriate the food match is."

Ultimately, the best solution may be Holstrom's, who created a wine list at Southpark organized by flavors (like "Smooth, Medium Bodied Reds") instead of varietals, as is traditional. By taking away a familiar context, the list tends to nudge people toward wines they wouldn't otherwise try. "I wanted them to see the similarities of style between wines from around the world, and encourage exploration. But I'm not naive. Part of the reason for [the success of the list] is that we don't offer 10 different Cabs."

Nevertheless, he's not convinced he's seen the future. "You'll see more people offering wines by the glass, more tastings and wine flights, but you won't see a lot of people following what Southpark is doing. It's time consuming to train the staff and then educate the customer."

Whether consumers will come to fully appreciate the abundance around them and the place it has with a meal ultimately depends on the energy the industry is willing to expend. For now, the momentum is there, at least every 18 days.


©1999 Matt Giraud. This story originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine.

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