Relative importance not drawn to scale.

This is the first in a series of articles discussing appellations.

In my series “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” of Washington wine, I noted that too few appellations in Washington had distinguished themselves. Why is that?

To answer that question, let’s first look at what appellations need to be successful. Note that I am defining success as broad wine consumer awareness. There are generally speaking, in my opinion, five basic things.

1. The appellation makes high quality, unique wines.

The first distinguishing factor for appellations is the most important. An appellation needs to have high quality wines that are unique. No appellation is going to make a name for itself unless the wines stand out from others in terms of quality, style, and, perhaps in some cases, price.

One way appellations gain traction is from people who pay a lot of attention to wine (media, trade, some consumers) and who try the wines and get excited about them because the wines are high quality and are distinctive. They tell people and get other people excited, who get other people excited, and so on and so on.

Over time, that appellation gains “brand” awareness. Consumers seek out the wines out. People travel to the area to try the wines. Wine stores and restaurants make sure to have wines from these areas on hand, as consumers are looking for them. It all starts, however, with making high quality, distinctive wines.

2. The appellation has one or more iconic producers.

At least initially, an appellation growing its awareness typically involves one or more iconic producers. These are the wineries making wines that are considered benchmarks with consumers and with the trade. The wines are often of considerably higher quality than most wines from that region. They are “Wow!” wines that capture people’s attention and imagination.

3. The appellation has a specific variety or style for which the region is known.

If you look at any highly regarded wine region around the world, it is known for a particular variety or style. If I say Napa Valley, you say Cabernet Sauvignon. I say Willamette Valley; you say Pinot Noir. If I say Tuscany, you say Sangiovese. The list goes on.

The key is that there is generally one, maybe two, particular wines for the area to hang its hat on. This increases the ease of building brand awareness. Consumers know what to look for. Retailers and restaurateurs know which wines to stock. It’s easy to figure out where to put the wines on restaurant lists.

4. The appellation makes enough wine to get into national distribution.

Of course, for a region to gain broader awareness, people need to not just hear about the wines. They need to be able to find the wines easily.

This requires wines being at retail stores and on restaurant lists. To do this, there needs to be ample production and distribution. Cult wineries can thrive on scarcity. Appellations, however, require abundance to reach consumers and grow awareness.

5. The appellation has a significant amount of wine tourism.

If one looks at most wine regions in the U.S. or beyond that have a high level of name recognition with consumers, these areas don’t just have great wines. They are also regions that people like to visit and that have a robust tourism industry.

How often do you see wine lovers posting pictures from Napa, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the like? In fact, part of the appeal of a bottle of wine is that one can vinously travel to a region. You can sip on a bottle of Chianti Classico while imagining yourself in a villa in Italy. Then, if you wish, you can actually go there.

It very much matters being able to travel to these areas. This is not to say that every great wine region of the world needs to be a wine tourism hotspot. But it is to say that it greatly aids recognition if there is a strong tourism component. It turbo-charges brand recognition and helps make the brand “sticky.”

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Next up, I’ll look at how these factors tie into some of the issues Washington has had gaining better traction for many of its appellations.

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