washington’s “outlier” ava

Friday, March 26, 2010

Definitions of outlier:
1) a person, thing, or part situated away from a main or related body
2) a point in a sample widely separated from the main cluster

The outlier AVA in Washington state – Puget Sound – fits perfectly. It is no criticism whatsoever to point to its outlier status, but it may offer a place to begin understanding how and why it exists.

Officially sanctioned in 1995, it includes the Puget Sound and its many islands (the red part of the map), along with parts of the Olympic Peninsula, and a wide swath of the mainland’s western edge. It is the home of the state’s first known vineyard, planted at Fort Vancouver around 1825. Today 14 wineries and a dozen growers are members of the Puget Sound Wine Growers Association but that membership does not include everyone who is growing grapes on the west side. As recently as yesterday, an article in the Seattle Times, describing a Bainbridge Island Winery Alliance, noted that pioneering winemaker Gerard Bentryn (Bainbridge Island Vineyards & Winery) has opted out “because he believes other winemakers compromise the integrity of the craft by not using island grapes.”

This is not just a local spat – it points to the crux of the marketing challenges surrounding the Puget Sound wineries. Should they focus exclusively on estate-grown grapes? I see Bentryn’s point, and he’s walked the walk for decades. Do what you can do right here, and do it well, and establish the AVA as focused and unique. But I can also understand the business advantages of mixing in wines from eastern Washington grapes.

The SWGA website proclaims that “because of the great climate in the Puget Sound basin, we have an abundance of choices for high quality grapes to choose from. Many of the grapes are well known, but some are not widely planted. Research continues to uncover new earlier ripening grape varieties and new areas west of the Cascades to grow grapes. With time and more growers planting every year, we'll uncover the optimal grapes and locations to grow grapes in the Puget Sound AVA.

Washington State University is an important player in this research, and operates a Mount Vernon Research Station with grape trials and solid information for those intending to plant vineyards on the west side.

Much data is tossed out to prove that “a good comparison in Europe to the Puget Sound might be the Loire valley, near Nantes (Muscadet), the Northern Rhine valley in Germany, Champagne or Chablis.” Though statistically correct, there is no correlation in terms of soils to any of these European regions, and I would not expect the Puget Sound to be producing comparable wines. Nor should it.

The grapes that have been shown to do quite well at a number of island vineyard sites are cool climate white wine grapes such as Madeleine Angevine, siegerrebe, Muller-Thurgau, and Chasselas. Some smaller plots of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir show potential. Some excellent berry wines are also produced.

It is a foregone conclusion that most Puget Sound wineries will continue to choose to augment their home-grown varietals with wines made from eastern Washington grapes. The leading island-based winery – Andrew Will – uses only eastern Washington grapes, proving that mountain passes, bridges and ferries need not preclude the ability to make world-class wines. But fair or unfair, and despite all the statistics, the climate, soils and western Washington location of this unique AVA will always keep it quite separate from the rest of the state.

A focus on what can be done well within the region, rather than efforts to draw comparisons with foreign wine regions, would, I believe, be more beneficial to generating tourism and interest in the wines.


Art said...

I'm becoming more interested in lesser known as well as obscure grape varietals myself, but I can't imagine how this AVA would ever be able to market the Madeleine Angevines, siegerrebes, Muller-Thurgaus, and Chasselas of the world to the general public and in sufficient quantities to justify producing them. Is anyone seriously encouraged by the ABC movement?

Stephanie LaMonica said...

i thought that was the whole point of having an AVA? that it be focused (in terms of its distinct geographical boundaries) and unique (its geographic features make it so)?

it makes 100% smart marketing sense to keep your product focused and unique, too. can't be everything for everyone - look what happened to Starbucks - and, if you stand for nothing, you fall for anything, so says Alexander Hamilton.

"the business advantages of mixing in wines from eastern Washington grapes" is really not an advantage at all because ANYONE can do this.
when the only thing proprietary about a wine is its fruit, i'd think you'd want to get those grapes from the AVA you're in, at the MINIMUM. obviously, from your own vineyard would be best.

Unknown said...

I don't think we need to focus our marketing efforts all that much. Most of the Puget Sound wineries I talk with sell out of their PS AVA wines much quicker than their Eastern Washington stuff. It is a bit of ABC, people like different wines. The low alcohol and refreshing flavors pair well much of the local seafood and cheeses.

The main problems the Puget Sound AVA faces are a diverse climate, geographically diversity, too few producers and expensive land.

I don't know any AVA that has as much climatic diversity anywhere in the USA, which can cause a lot of confusion. I grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the relatively warm location of Woodinville and there are those trying to grow grapes in Sequim where it is a challenge to get the earliest ripening grapes to produce.

The wineries are too spread out to have an cohesive bond (By the way, most of the vineyards are not located on islands). Land prices are mostly too high to make it feasible to start a farm of any type, much less a vineyard. Then the biggest challenge is getting more growers putting vines in the ground. We still haven't reached a critical mass of producers to make the Puget Sound AVA well known enough.

How many wineries in the state focus on just one AVA? I bet it's just a handful. Most pick and choose from a variety of AVAs to try and make the best wine. Same with most of us here in the Puget Sound. We love the wines we make from our backyards, but we also love wines from Eastern Washington.

As always... come out and visit the vineyards and talk to the winemakers, it's the best way to get to know what we are doing growing grapes here in Western Washington...

Steve Snyder
Hollywood Hill Vineyards

Bean Fairbanks said...

We have been tasting a lot of Siegerrebe lately and it has evolved to become one of Ed's favorite varietals. He is becoming an unofficial ambassador of the grape and loves to bring it to parties and dinners. If he shows people the bottle, they don't want to try it. A lot of ignorance about Puget Sound wineries and this varietal. Now he just pours them a glass and offers it with a smile. If he offers that glass with a tasty tidbit of local fare, he usually has a convert.

Gerard Bentryn said...

Trying to recover from major operation so please pardon the slow response. I think Paul's comments are generally positive. As I mull over my mortality with a tumor removed from my brain, I try to look at the bigger picture. I fear for the integrity of wine. Folks are just not being told about the manipulation of wine with things like reverse osmosis. Wine is tasting better but is less real. I maintain that wine is grown not made. The Mexicans in the desert really make the wine. The desire to do something meaningful with "keyboard lives" leads to folks opening wineries like coffee shops, one on every corner. To me local wine can only come from local vineyards. No one should risk money on wine for more than $10 a bottle if it does not say on the label "grown, produced, and bottled by". The words on most labels have no legal meanings as there is no enforcement. Please find out what "shiners" are and what "custom crush really means" before you cross that $10 threshold. These are my opinions only. As far as Bainbridge Island Vineyards goes, I hope to turn it over to younger and healthier folks who have a fresher, less cynical approach. We are in a time of transition here so please be patient with our limited hours of opening. Our record is: Oldest continuously operating family farm estate winery in the State. Over 500 tons of Puget Sound grapes, picked, and wine sold. No other source of income, this is a professional winery not a hobby. 18,000 vines kept alive by primarily local purchasers.
No shiners, no bulk wine mixed with ours, no California alcohol added as is all too common.

Anyway best to all.

Gerard Bentryn
Bainbridge Island Vineyards

PaulG said...

Best wishes to you, sir, for a full and speedy recovery.

Unknown said...

I find it humorous to see the term "outlier", which indicates remoteness, being used to denote the place where MOST Washingtonians actually reside...

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