Industry group sponsors road trip to sell US sommeliers, retailers on Washington wine country

By Shannon Dininny, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wash. wine group lures buyers to state’s vineyards

WAPATO, Wash. — More then three dozen wine buyers from major U.S. restaurants and retailers are plucking grapes from vines and swirling and sipping wines during a road trip through Washington wine country this week, part of a concerted effort to raise the industry’s profile outside the Pacific Northwest.

In its third year, the domestic promotion sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission includes stops at vineyards and wineries in Seattle, Walla Walla and the Yakima and Columbia valleys.

Collectively, the buyers represent more than $750 million in annual purchasing power. For some, the experience educated them about Washington’s premier wine regions, but for others, it served as a reminder that Washington has more to offer than what they’re already buying.

Roger Fawcett, regional wine buyer for Whole Foods Market Inc. in Las Vegas, said his stores carry between 700 and 1,000 different wines, including Washington labels. However, most are red wines, with a few Rieslings from larger wineries.

“It became clear to me that we need more whites from small Washington wineries,” he said. “And I’m seeing a lot more advances with reds that aren’t the usual cabernet, merlot and syrah.”

Washington’s $3 billion wine industry still ranks second behind California, which has more than 10 times the acreage and four times the number of wineries. But the industry is growing: Washington now boasts more than 650 wineries.

Before the trip begins, the Wine Commission surveys the guests about their company’s wine sales, the percentage of wine sales from Washington state, and whether they have a Washington state wine list on their restaurant menu or a section or aisle devoted to the state’s wines in their stores. They repeat the survey a few months later.

“What we find is that restaurant listings go up and retail shelf space goes up,” said Ryan Pennington, spokesman for the Wine Commission. “We see more dedicated promotions for Washington wine. And anecdotally from the wineries, we hear about a sales bump from the visits.”

More than half of the 2,600 wines sold at Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco come from the Burgundy region of France, sommelier Tony Cha said.

“We have some Washington wines, but we’ve never had a section devoted to it,” he said. “I’d like it to change, but there’s simply not as much exposure. An effort like this — I’ve learned so much about producers, vineyards, regions — it certainly helps.”

The slow economy also could open new markets for Washington that otherwise might have taken longer to break into, Cha said.

“Washington is best known for Bordeaux varietals and syrahs. They make other wines — and they’re good — but those are what they’re known for, and at great price points,” he said. “Napa is getting expensive. Washington could absolutely start to step in there. It’s a perfect opportunity.”

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