Despite the fact that Washington State wines have received numerous accolades and high scores in recent years, many people remain unaware that Washington is a significant wine region. Surely, people who pay close attention to the world of wine are keyed in on what is happening here, but the average consumer is still somewhat unaware. Recently, several Washington wineries have set out to fix this.
Part of the problem with Washington’s brand recognition is the dominance of California in the national marketplace. Part of the problem is the amount of time it takes to build a national and international brand. And part of it is due to a tiny little district on the eastern seaboard. Never forget that when many people hear Washington, they don’t think Washington State (we won’t even discuss the fact that they don’t necessarily have, how shall we say, a positive association?). My favorite example of this, which I mentioned recently, was when Bob Betz, now of Betz Family Winery, was once asked, “Which side of the Potomac did you say the grapes were grown on?”
The problem gets worse. The Columbia Valley is by far Washington’s largest American Viticultural Area, encompassing the majority of the state’s wine growing regions. A Columbia Valley designation is given to most of the wines produced in Washington. However, when most consumers read ‘Columbia Valley’ they think of…nothing! They have no idea where it is.
Several wineries have recently taken steps to increase Washington State’s brand recognition by slight alterations in their labels. One of the changes comes from Columbia Crest. At over two million cases produced annually, Columbia Crest is by a good stretch Washington State’s largest winery. It is also the winery with the largest reach, receiving wide international distribution. With the 2007 vintage, Columbia Crest made a very subtle change in the branding of their Grand Estates wines putting ‘Washington Grown’ on the bottom of the label. Subtle perhaps but a significant improvement over just ‘Columbia Valley’ and one that is likely to be noticed by consumers over the long term.
Chateau Ste. Michelle has long tried to grapple with Washington’s identity problem. However, in Chateau Ste. Michelle’s case, the problem is even worse. Many consumers don’t realize that Chateau Ste. Michelle is located in Washington State, believing instead that the wines are from California or, gasp, France (the horror is mutual I am sure). For a number of years, Chateau Ste. Michelle has tried to combat this misperception by putting ‘Washington State’s Founding Winery’ on the bottom of its labels. This brilliant piece of marketing simultaneously brands the wine as coming from Washington State and establishes the winery’s place in history.
While Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle represent some of the state’s largest brands, other, smaller wineries are also focusing on developing Washington State’s brand recognition. Charles Smith labels each of his Charles Smith Wines ‘Washington State.’ Seeing this in Smith’s iconic black and white labels is sure to have an effect on consumers. Wines of Substance also labels all of its wines Washington State regardless of AVA of origin.
While labeling bottles with something that definitively says ‘Washington State’ is often a reasonably subtle change, I do believe that this, combined with the long list of high scores, will over time establish a strong brand identity with the average wine consumer. Now if we could just do something about that pesky District of Columbia.