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ALMOST RIPE: A CAUTIONARY TALE OF THE WASHINGTON WINE TRADE


Reviewed by STEPHEN W. BODY


In the world of wine, as with any other business or craft that spawns its own culture, everyone is constantly on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. Just in the past decade, it's been Spain, Australia, the Southern Rhone, several minor appellations in California, Chile, and, most notably, Oregon, bristling with all those Burgundy-Wannabe Pinot houses. The fever usually abates in a few months or so and attention shifts to the next little vest-pocket winery that's won a 95 from Parker/Spectator/Tanzer, et al. It's an endearingly childlike attribute of even those of us who think of ourselves as worldly and sophisticated that we're so eager to go dashing off in search of the next new Shiny Bauble. And, it's wonderfully beneficial to those involved, sometimes. Wineries producing noteworthy wines that may have taken a decade to find themselves on the map sometimes land there overnight. If they're ready, that's a blessing.

If they're not, it can be a crippling, persistent curse.

Which brings us to my home state - Washington.

Washington, at this writing, is the second-largest wine-producing state in America. The current, 2002, harvest is reported to be one of the largest in our state's history and possibly its finest. With the Walla Walla Valley as our centerpiece, Washington is booming with new startups, new construction, new varietals (Malbec, Sangiovese, Gamay, Tempranillo, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, just to name a few), and some notable successes with certain grapes that approach world-class bottlings. Viognier, that most finicky of Rhone whites, seems to flourish here, in delicious, mouth-coating versions from half a dozen of the state's better houses and credible efforts from a couple dozen more. Syrah has become a full-blown mania here, led by Rusty Figgins' lovely Glen Fiona bottlings and followed by McCrae, Hogue, K, L'Ecole No. 41, and a slew of others.

But the dark underbelly of all this progress is a long-standing, rooty, and somewhat blind belief that Washington wines are already - and have been for over a decade - every bit as good as California's elite. This attitude isn't an impression gathered from rumor or inference; it's been repeated by the state's vintners for years, mantra-like, and has come to be accepted as an article of faith. It doesn't take much digging to find such flat assertions in interviews with Washington wine trade types. For Seattle-area wine distributors, this assumption has taken on the weight of a blunt instrument used to whack the region's bottle shops, restaurants, and grocery wine departments into larger list and shelf presence for in-state wines. "People here prefer local wines," I've been told by half a dozen sales reps, "And, really, they're as good as anything you can get out of California."

This sort of blind boosterism is part of the Northwest character in many ways. From Washington Husky football to the local restaurant scene to hiking, skiing, mountain-climbing, and even The Space Needle, Washingtonians tout the region's many and powerful virtues in ways that outpace even the scale of those virtues. It comes off, to those of us not born and raised here, as a sort of good-natured. The problem is that these folks don't have, running in the back of their heads, any sort of tiny voice that says, "California has been making wine for longer than Washington has been a state and they're really a good bit ahead of us." They've actually bought into their own hyperbole And even that wouldn't be a bad thing, except for one small detail.

About 1985, watching the state's vineyard presence grow exponentially and seeing a great deal of promise in some of the more-established wineries, Washington's winery owners decided, informally, that pricing their wines appropriately lower than California's upper tier was a tacit admission that these wines were not as good. That admission raised quite a few hackles and, honestly, the California wineries' smug assumption of their own superiority served to aggravate the situation. Their condescending attitudes toward Washington's vintners, at large-scale tastings and wine competitions, alienated most of the Washington community and resulted in an audacious and, I believe, ill-conceived decision to set prices at a level that would keep pace with the Californians. Not to do so, many owners argued, would put Washington in a perpetually inferior economic relationship to California and even Oregon's emergent Pinot Noir trade. By 1990, prices of Washington wines had begun to match and, in rare cases like Leonetti's Cabs and Merlots, to surpass many of the roughly comparable California offerings.

The problem here is that the results haven't borne out the strategy. So far, to use the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon as a yardstick, Washington's most celebrated and highest-rated bottlings have been the 1994 Quilceda Creek Cab and a couple of the Leonettis, the scores for which, from Parker, Spectator, Tanzer, and others, peaked at around 94 on a hundred-point scale. In 1994, California had over two dozen Cabs that rated 95 or better and that percentage has remained more or less constant in all the vintages since. Today, the 90-94 point range in all three publications is littered with Washingtonians like the aforementioned established houses and relative newcomers like Reininger, Cooper River, Kestrel, Andrew Will, McCrae, Tamarack, Betz, and DeLille. The general quality level of Washington wines has increased dramatically, through more skilled winemaking and the increasing maturity of a lot of the state's vineyard properties. But the market has, at the same time, become almost the private playground of well-financed neophyte winemakers who start out offering $40 bottles of single-vineyard Syrah or appellation Cabs and Merlots and then wonder why they have such a hard time making ends meet in our supposed boom years.

California has always had a lower tier of credible, accomplished wineries - many de facto negociants - who make very drinkable, interesting reds and some spectacular whites that sell for less than $10 a bottle. Washington hasn't. Our cheap wines have tended to be simply cheap, bearing few varietal characteristics and nearly indistinguishable one from another in blind tastings. There are still very, very few exceptions to this rule. Snoqualmie Vineyards, a Columbia Crest affiliate, has been the most consistent and reliable source for reasonable reds, with a reserve Cab and Merlot selling for right around $20. Their basic Bordeaux blend, the Snoqualmie Columbia Valley Cab-Merlot, is the state's best and has held onto a price point of right around $10. A negociant operation, Randall Harris, has managed a couple of decent Merlots around ten but the state's bargain houses - Paul Thomas, Washington Hills, Silver Lake and maybe eight others, continue to grind out uninspired, often-insipid wines that frequently don't even justify their $6 - $11 price tags.

The Walla Walla Valley, which even European wine publications have touted lately as the Next Big Thing, has sprouted almost twenty new wineries in the past two years, all of which sport one or more $30+ reds, almost no whites, and nary a value wine among them. The grumbling about saturation of Walla Walla is already underway, statewide. Seattle wine merchants are beginning to buy Walla Walla wines the way they'd by anything else: taste, evaluate, and buy on merit. Many of the new winery owners have whined publicly, in print, about the "lack of support for Washington wines" that this failure of local merchants to simply automatically stock their first bottlings demonstrates. A couple have already failed. More probably will. Several deserve to.

And, yes, I know very well how incredibly subjective the whole question of relative quality is. My opinion definitely weighs into this article. But I am only one of a growing community of grumbling winesellers in the Seattle area who feel that Washington's lack of wineries that understand the need for good, homegrown, serious value wines is undermining not only the entire bargain-wine tier but our premium class as well. The cash that better Washington value wines would generate would help fund new vineyard development, better facilities, new technology, more sophisticated marketing, and more time to pay attention to making better fine wines, without having to constantly skate at the edge of bankruptcy, as many of our wineries do. California wineries learned these lessons decades ago. Stag's Leap had Hawk Crest, Caymus had Liberty School, and a host of other great California houses maintained second labels as cash cows against less successful vintages. So far, the only Washington winery to do that is Woodward Canyon, which introduced Nelms Road reds a couple of years back, at fairly reasonable prices, only to get greedy and scale up so that the Nelms Road stuff now sells at over $20 a bottle.

What Washington desperately needs is someone like Gary Hogue, only with better grapes. Washington's great omnipresent labels are, of course, Chateau St. Michelle, Hogue, and Columbia, but these wineries have had only spotty success with their upper-end bottlings and even less, in recent years, with bargain wines. They are primary examples of the idea that you can just make Too Much Wine. Each of them occasionally makes a fine $10 - $20 wine but, in the past decade, it's fallen under the heading of Even a Blind Pig Finds an Acorn Now and Then. David Lake's tenure at Columbia was one of the cornerstones of the notion that Washington can and should be a serious wine-producing state but even Columbia, the most consistent and reliable of the three, cranks out its own share of barely-passable juice. St. Michelle is the most frustrating of the lot. They control some of the state's most promising and most matured vineyard properties but, aside from some overly-flattering marks from the Wine Spectator - whose ownership's financial relationship to St. Michelle's renders those gaudy marks suspect to those of us here in WA - they make only one or two really excellent wines per vintage, while the rest of their huge roster is frequently as undistinguished as any cheapo Italian plonk.

So, what's going to happen? Probably, Washington's wines will soon come of age and a lot of the $25-$45 tier's prices will come to be seen as reasonable…unless, of course, those prices don't hold. Just a few years ago, Leonetti's Cabs were gettable for about $45 or $50, and there was a waiting list. Two vintages ago, though, as the wholesale price crept up past $60 a bottle, those of us in the Seattle wine biz had the stunning and unprecedented experience of taking a call from Leonetti's sales manager, asking if we'd like to buy more wine. Seems their subscription list had begun to balk at $75 per bottle and had refused their allotted cases.

It was a lesson wasted on most of the other vintners, though. Blackwood Canyon came out with a debut Merlot at $48 a bottle. Betz started at $30+ for their Cabs and Merlots. My friend Charles Smith premiered his nice-but-no-cigar K Syrah at $30 retail. He's now released a $19 bottling that's flying out of stores but then Charles is a smart guy and was able to add up the fact that his wine was sitting still and that people were put off by the price and do something about it. A lot of his bretheren just Don't Get It, and never will.

Here's one guy's opinion: Washington's wines are overpriced now. They are far less potent, polished, complex, skillful, reflective of their terroir, extracted, and just plain tasty than similar California wines. There ARE exceptions. Marty Clubb, at L'Ecole No. 41, is making a line of wines that are as sophisticated, flavorful, charismatic, and well-made as any California house going. Chris Camarda, at Andrew Will, is making Merlots, and lately a few Cabs, that are as good as all but about 5% of anything coming out of the Napa Valley. Rusty Figgins continues to make sublime, world-class Syrahs. And Alexander Golitzin, at Quilceda Creek, is rightly regarded as one of America's best makers of Bordeaux varietals. In a few years, some of the new guys may have amassed similar reputations. The odds are very good and the odds are even better that the Walla Walla Valley will, eventually, arrive as the next Napa. But, for right now, the words for prospective buyers of Washington wines are the same two as they have always been:

Buyer Beware.