A little wine quiz for you: Out of every 100 bottles of wine sold in Washington state, how many are made by Washington wineries?
On the face of it, I would guess the percentage is pretty high. Generally, Washington wines are really well made, aren’t as overpriced as, say, Napa or Sonoma wines, and people in the Northwest are generally supportive of locally made products.
Still, I’m here to tell you that we’re not buying enough Washington wine. We must do a better job of supporting the home team.
For the record, Washington has less than 25 percent market share. That means that for every case of wine purchased in the state, nine bottles are from California, France, Italy and Australia.
In California, market share is closer to 75 percent. In France and Italy and Germany, it’s close to 100 percent. French people drink French wine. In Italy, they mostly don’t drink wine from farther than about 10 kilometers away. They think the more local the wine and food tastes, the better.
Drinking local has a lot of side benefits: More money in winery owners’ pockets, more local taxes generated, more jobs created. It’s good for local businesses, it’s good for local economies.
I’ll be the first to admit that I could drink more local wine. Of the four wine clubs I belong to, one is a Wines of the World club through National Geographic magazine. Every month I get a dozen red wines from around the world. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s important for me to keep the palate familiar with a wide variety of wines. I also taste a lot of California wines at competitions I judge. In my work for The Seattle Times, one out of 12 columns is beyond Northwest in nature.
Those other three wine clubs I’m in are for wineries within 60 miles of my house.
One fact skews the market share a bit: About a third of California wine made is in the “jug wine” category. Because the Washington wine industry isn’t built to make those kinds of wines, we simply can’t compete on price for box wines nor inexpensive imports from Australia, Argentina and Italy.
I was recently reading a book that talked about a new classification of Bordeaux wines called “Cru Bourgeois.” These wines are meant to be less expensive to encourage consumers to buy more Bordeaux. Among the most famous is Mouton Cadet (of which hundreds of thousands of cases are made).
While I would never advocate for such a classification system in the United States or at the state level, a level of Cru Bourgeois-style wines is emerging under brands from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Precept, Wines of Substance, Boomtown by Dusted Valley, Vino la Monarcha, and what would otherwise be considered declassified wines - perhaps not quite good enough for the flagship brand, but darned tasty.
These wines are often crafted outside the winery at a custom-crush facility. It’s good for all of us. A winery can launch a new brand without the winemaking infrastructure and provide good wines at nice prices. It has the added bonus of using unsold fruit from Washington vineyards. We currently have a glut of Riesling, and we’ll likely have a glut of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in years to come.
Imagine if every winery produced 5,000 cases of Cru Bourgeois-style wines through a custom-crush facility. That would be a nice cash-flow brand for the winery and burnish our state’s reputation for value wines.
If Washington wine lovers treated our hometown industry with as much enthusiasm as we do the Seahawks, we’d need to plant more vineyards, would fill the tax coffers and would build a healthier state economy. And one other detail: The best wines made in places such as Argentina and Australia never make it outside the country. The wine lovers there buy it all up. The same thing happens with our top producers, from Walla Walla to Woodinville.
We can all do our part: Give Washington wines as holiday gifts, open more Washington wines at meals. Drink Washington, kiss French. Support the home team. It’s good for everyone.
The state wine industry might be better served by focusing its marketing efforts on state residents and surrounding states. This may be our state wine industry’s biggest opportunity.