This is part 2 of a series of articles about appellations. Read part 1.
In my series “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” of Washington wine, I wrote that too few appellations in the state have distinguished themselves in the eyes of consumers. (Note: This is different than Washington having too many appellations.) Why is this?
It’s directly related to what appellations need to do to gain widespread consumer awareness that I wrote about recently. Let’s look at the criteria I listed.
1. Some appellations in Washington have shown that they can consistently produce high quality, unique wines. Some have not to date.
The first and most important bar to meet is showing that an appellation produces high quality, unique wines. Some appellations in Washington have done this. Others have not and are still in their early stages.
Meeting this bar requires the right producers exploring the right varieties in the right places. It also takes time, educated guesses, and, sometimes, a little luck.
Note that it is by no means enough to just create high quality wines. They also have to be distinctive in some fashion and, ideally, in a way that people can easily explain and understand.
2. Too few Washington appellations have “iconic” producers.
One of the ways appellations rise to prominence is through “iconic” producers. These are wineries working at a very high level that distinguish themselves in the eyes of consumers, trade, and media with their wines. They are the producers that help put the appellation on the map.
Many appellations in Washington do not (yet) have iconic producers associated with them. Note that this is both a challenge and an opportunity. The appellations that do have iconic producers is part of the reason that these places are better known.
3. Too few Washington appellations have identified a key variety or style that can be promoted nationally.
It’s not a problem that Washington doesn’t have a so-called “signature variety” or style. The state will never be defined by a single variety, as it is too large and does too many things well.
But it is a problem that not enough appellations have identified a single variety or style to promote broadly. That greatly hampers raising awareness, as it complicates the storytelling.
To be clear, appellations, particularly larger ones such as the gigantic Columbia Valley, shouldn’t be expected to just grow one thing. Even in the Rheingau, a dozen or more varieties are grown. However, that area is globally known for one variety – Riesling.
4. Most appellations in Washington have little to no wines in national distribution.
If one looks at Washington’s 20 appellations, very few of them have wines in national distribution. A visit to most any wine store outside the Pacific Northwest would quickly confirm this.
As I’ve said before, you can’t grow awareness if people don’t see the wines on the shelves and can’t find the wines. Right now, that’s an issue for most of Washington’s appellations.
5. Most of Washington’s appellations are not major wine tourism regions.
Washington is currently home to 20 appellations. However, very few of these appellations have significant levels of wine tourism at present. More importantly, about half of Washington’s appellations have three wineries or fewer contained within their boundaries. Some have none.
It’s not a requirement that an appellation have wineries. But it’s very difficult for wine regions to gain broad traction if they are not places that one can visit and taste wine.
6. Wineries being separated from vineyards in Washington hinders appellation visibility and viability.
Washington’s wine industry has thrived in part because wineries across the state can source grapes from vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley and beyond and then vinify them in their home location. However, this is a double edged sword. Wineries being physically separated from vineyards and not, in most cases, being tied to estate vineyards greatly hinders growing appellation awareness.
Many wineries around the state need to explain where they source grapes from, where that appellation is located, and what makes that appellation unique. Then, in many cases, they need to do it again for the next wine in their lineup, which might come from a totally different place.
That’s much different than saying “Here we are on Red Mountain with its beautiful south-facing slope tasting a wine from grapes grown over there (pointing). Feel that heat and wind today? Let’s talk about how that translates into the wine in your glass.”
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Bottom line, many of Washington’s appellations have failed to distinguish themselves to date because they don’t meet the criteria to achieve broad consumer awareness. That might change over time. Many of Washington’s appellations are very young. Brand building for appellations is, at best, a multi-decade process.
Let me also say that not every appellation needs to gain widespread awareness to be successful by some measure. Some appellations can only be locally known and appreciated and still be important. This is true the world over, particularly for wines with more limited production.
But Washington is trying to create a category for its wines. It’s a category that, for many, does not exist at present. If producers are trying to raise awareness for the state through specific appellations, for many of these places, the calculus needs to change considerably for this to be successful.
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