Sips

Taste Washington!, which packed the Paramount Theater April 22, is the Washington wine industry's biggest party of the year, and this year there was plenty to celebrate. And just enough to worry about to keep things interesting.

If sheer growth impresses you, 2000 was another record year: more acreages in wine grapes, more gallons of wine made, more winemakers than ever—a new producer entering the market every 18 days, so the buzz goes. Harder to quantify but more impressive is the continuing improvement in quality. Twenty six of the wines put forward by the makers at Taste Washington! were made entirely or principally from Washington's favorite grape variety, merlot: Not one was less than satisfactory, and average quality was amazingly high.

Given that merlot remains the market darling and consumers will buy pretty much anything with its name on the label, that's pretty impressive testimony to winemakers' commitment to quality. It's even more impressive when you consider that the average producer would rather be rated for its accomplishments with cabernet sauvignon than merlot. But cab continues to command more prestige than market-share.

Prestige is nothing to be sneezed at, of course. The implicit business plan behind many Washington winery start-ups might read: Put everything you've got into making the smallest possible number of bottles of the best wine you can; price it high; and place it in a few prestigious shops where the connoisseurs shop, in hope of building a reputation and making enough money to produce a few hundred more bottles next year.

Some merchants have no trouble with this. "It's kind of a pain in the neck, dealing with all these producers with no distribution arrangement driving up to our loading dock every couple days," says Equin's Chuck LeFevre. "But our kind of customer is always on the lookout for what's new and doesn't mind paying for top quality, so it ends up being good for all of us: winemaker, buyer, and shop."

Michael Teer of Pike and Western agrees, but sees problems on the horizon. "We committed from the start to Washington wine and probably sell more than any other single shop in town," he says, "but with a new winery every three weeks competing for a limited amount of shelf space, there's obviously going to be a crunch one day, no matter how good each bottle may be."

Teer also worries about what happens when Washington is no longer seen as a hot new kid on the block but just another world wine region having to compete not only on merit but price. "Our consumer's not a complete chauvinist. All of a sudden here comes Spain, with great wines at terrific prices. Chile's already making a mark. Argentina could be next. Australia's awash in wine. There's a glut out there, and one of these days the mom-and-pop Washington producer is going to have to come to terms with that."

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