Sameness and sustainability: The Northwest’s challenges

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Watching any wine appellation grow up, define itself and develop into a dominant force, or not, is something to watch. At times it appears to happen all in slow motion, developing in real time but like a slow motion replay in a sporting event. Both when the predictable outcome is good and when it is bad you can see it coming.

This is where I find myself with respect to Washington wine. The challenges are unfolding in front of me in slow motion, the end of the scene does not look good, and I hope that something shifts to change the outcome. The dual challenges are sameness in winemaking approach and flavor profiles and sustainability of pricing trends.

A report came out this week on the 2016 wine grape harvest for Washington State which hit another record. The top grape varietals picked were Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay not necessarily in that order but the top 4 nonetheless. Here’s the rub. When we taste the wines from many Washington wineries this is their typical portfolio along with a couple of red blends based on either Cabernet or Merlot or both. We taste a lot of wine and our palates are pretty well developed and even looking at the labels any of these wines from any number of wineries are undistinguishable. Let’s not even entertain the thought of tasting blind, just on their own it is tough to tell the difference between winery A, winery B, all the way through Winery Z.

The tendency for most of the wineries from our neighbor to the east to be a bit too generous with the oak, a little too enthralled with alcohol and extraction, and way too willing to blend away varietal character is resulting in a homogenous and completely uninteresting set of wines that struggle to find a home. You can see it too in the composition of the wine grape harvest. How is it that the top 4 varietals by tonnage do not even include the grape that does better in Washington than any other, Syrah?

The sameness is staggering and only finds rare exceptions with some of the very best and most sophisticated producers. This should not be read as the most expensive producers because even at the high end of the price scale this sameness is taking hold. There are a group of winemakers to be sure that recognize the threat of all wines tasting the same and are resisting the blend for the sake of blending movement. They will thrive, those not recognizing it may not.

The second big challenge for the Northwest wine industry specifically Washington is pricing. Washington made wines are getting “spendy,” when compared to offerings from other places very “spendy.” Are there wines made in Washington that are worth the super premium prices they are charging, you bet! Are all of them worth it, no way!

The interesting dynamic at play here is when these two challenges collide. When you have a winery producing the “same old same old” blended wine that tastes like 100 others and is trying to command top dollar for the effort. It can’t last and is not sustainable. Conversely you see a group of winemakers who recognize the sameness creeping into the market and strive to distinguish their wines while pricing them at levels that are not only justified by the quality of their product but can stand up to the competition from other regions.

I believe that most winemakers will grow out of the sameness trap; the pricing challenge though is tougher. After a recent wine event we held featuring wines from an Italian producer one of our customers pulled me aside and said “Now tell me again why I would buy 6 bottles of Washington wine when I just bought 6 bottles of great Italian wine for $100, it would cost me twice that.” Of course there are variations in pricing and it wouldn’t be 2X in every case but this is an unvarnished perception of a wine consumer. The bigger problem to us is we are now seeing Washington prices blow by many from California. Regional pride notwithstanding it is simply not sustainable to see pricing going this way.

The Washington Wine Industry is going to be fine. These challenges will almost certainly be met. Prices will come more into line and diversity of flavors and profiles will reemerge. Along the way there will be some casualties though. I feel bad saying it but some are even needed.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com, or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

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George Balling is co-owner (with his wife Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and table top décor shop located by Costco in Coeur d’Alene. George worked as a judge in many wine competitions, and his articles are published around the country. You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. Be sure and check out our weekly blog at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com/home/blog-2. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.

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