are washington wines too expensive?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

This is one of the most common complaints I hear on a regular basis from readers of my blog and newspaper columns. I can’t recall how often I have tried to debunk this idea, but it still persists. It persists to such a degree that even among those with a direct connection to the wine business it still arises, as it did yesterday in the context of a business meeting with the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

So I posed the question on my Facebook page, and a torrent of responses came in.
I asked “why is it commonly believed - even by wine professionals - that Washington wine is way overpriced? And shouldn't that be an important idea for marketing and trade groups to challenge?” Here are some of the comments that came back:

Jamie S: I don't get it...especially as compared to insane California prices.

Larry O: We have a massive price/quality advantage over our higher priced competitors in California, so I wonder why this myth is still propagated. Has anyone that believes this to be true tried to purchase a 2005 Bordeaux? Or even looked at futures? Many people's budgets for wine have certainly taken a hit, but that doesn't mean a $28 bottle of really tasty Syrah or Cab Franc isn't worth it.

Tim R: I absolutely agree! Compare what you can get for $30 in Washington to what you can get in California for that price point. There are always exceptions, but Washington certainly has better value across the board than California does. We do have a ton of wines in the $30 to $50 range, but for the most part, they are worth it.

Julie L: I believe that almost all of our Washington wines are worth every penny I pay. Goes to the old adage, you get what you pay for. There are so many great Washington wines at value prices I can't believe people would complain.

Phil A: I'm amazed at how many Washington wines are available for under $20 that are very good. I just purchased our new go-to, everyday wine which I am embarrassed at how little it cost but is, in my opinion, very good – Ryan Patrick Naked Chardonnay. The list goes on and on about how many quality wineries are producing quality wine for a reasonable cost. I don't agree with Julie when she wrote, "Goes to the old adage, you get what you pay for." In wine, you can pay for $50 for swill (as my friend D.C. from the Met would say) or $20 for quality.

Catie W: After visiting Napa and Sonoma last year and tasting a lot of their wines, it only confirmed for me that for the quality Washington wines are not overpriced.

Chuck M: I wish that many Washington producers would save even more money by backing off the use of new oak. Then the wines can be distinguished from California in both style AND value.

Glenn C: Some of the better wines in Washington have figured out the oak regime a long time ago.... it's all about the fruit and the dirt.... not the oak........good point Chuck.

Rachel B: I think the hardest part is figuring out the bargains. Found some wines I felt the winemaker was giving away and some that a kick myself for buying. Not knowing what’s available in other states I can see how this problem starts. I have heard it’s easier to price high at first and lower one’s price, than it is to start low and raise your price later. Maybe you even wrote that thought.

Sean S: Paul, great question. Having looked at numbers on this at different points in time, the data don't support the assertion. Quite the opposite actually. Time to fight back!

Alexander G: I’ve never heard that but... $120 outta the blocks? Could give people that idea.

Tia B: Seriously? Who are these people?

Dieter K: It's not the oak, or purchased fruit, it's the packaging. Put the wine in Tetra Prismas. Save the environment ( ) and lower production costs significantly. Plant a vineyard and dryfarm it. We're 500 years behind Euro viticulture and 75 behind in viniculture techniques designed to economize, but we're catching up fast.

PG: Good thoughts; here are mine. In large part it comes down to quantity. California has 20 times the acreage, much of it dedicated to producing an ocean of $4 and $6 plonk. So outside of the West Coast, what consumers see in the supermarkets and bodegas is cheap California wine. There are plenty of great wines from Washington that fit the under-$15 price point, but they rarely are made in quantities that permit massive national distribution. The really interesting stuff, such as the Arbor Crest old vine riesling I blogged about yesterday, probably isn’t going to pop up on a shelf in Miami any time soon. But I would love to see the Wine Commission put together a road show featuring Washington wines priced $15 and under, so the rest of the world can see what we have out here for bargain wines. It’s fine to focus on the highest scoring, most prestigious wines to build a quality reputation, and that has been done effectively. How about a focus on the stuff that most people actually drink?


Cabfrancophile said...

I think part of the problem is folks always compare anything Cab or Merlot based to Napa and Bordeaux. These are not the regions to compare against for value. Quality, perhaps, but value, no. These regions are the outliers, so being less expensive than the big guns does not necessarily mean a wine is a good value.

The real comparison on value needs to be Washington against Chile, Argentina, Languedoc, Loire and the less famous coastal regions of California. I honesty don't know how Washington stacks up in this respect. Probably pretty well. But Napa and Bordeaux are straw men that are easily knocked down in any value argument. The non straw men are the tougher ones to knock down.

Dave E said...

I think it's easy enough to make the case that relative to California, Washington wines are fairly priced. BUT, if you consider the rest of the world, domestic wines (Washington included) don't measure up quite as well. I run a store in Seattle, and we do tastings twice a week, so I get lots of chances to gauge customer reaction to various wines. My experience is that under-$20 Washington wines that actually excite my customers are few and far between. When I show more expensive Washington wines, the customers love to taste, but then buy very little - I think because of price. By contrast, there are dozens, if not hundreds of producers from Southern France, Spain, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina who make wine in the $10-$20 range that my customers get really excited about. Since there are very few Northwest wines under $20 that move for me, and since $20 and up wines - from anywhere - don't do much for me either, I'm working to reduce my Northwest section in favor of the wines that sell. I'm sorry to do it, but I'm trying to make a living - not run a museum.

Anonymous said...

Douggator - (IMO) When I read this yesterday, I agreed with PaulG's comment that it is about perception compared to California since they have large national distribution of very cheap and moderately proced wine. And most people do not compare at levels of quality. For the comment on not fair to compare to Napa and Bordeaux, I think that is where Washington does well, as Washington's comparable wine at a quality level is priced extremely well (Screaming Eagle 750, Quilceda Creek 125, and on down the line). For getting excited, I think some of that is the exotic nature of imports and more about perception than reality and needs the marketing PaulG mentioned to overcome.

Anonymous said...

Washington is an amazingly consistent producer of top-quality wines. Values exist in relation to similar wines from other parts of the world. However, there is a frequent complaint of the $40 new producer/no track record/no estate fruit/ no brick and stone winery. I do find it hard to pony up $40 for a new winery's initial offering when there are plenty of estate grown established wineries to choose from. In this case, I think those wines are over-priced whether they come from washington or any other region.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I think it's a great idea to do some sort of road show on 'value wines' from Washington. Obviously major players such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest have national distribution, but there are many interesting wines in the lower price categories that just don't make it to consumers outside the state (and in cases inside the state) as you have mentioned.

I truly believe this is a serious problem for the Washington wine industry in terms of building its brand nationwide. Consumers *need* to be able to try wines at lower price points from an area to generate interest in moving on up the ladder. Right now, it would be a BIG stretch to expect a consumer to say, "Nice review of the $40 Syrah. I think I'll order a bottle from the winery, pay $20 in shipping, and see what it's all about." Not going to happen. Now if they could find a $15 bottle of wine on the shelf from the same area or same producer, assuming it was of sufficient quality, they would be considerably more likely to take the leap in the future. Hell, they might even travel out here!

Two brands that I believe are successfully advancing this cause is Charles Smith and Wines of Substance.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dave E's comments. It is difficult to find WA wines in the 20ish range that generate much excitement for me. This has become a real frustration. I have had much more luck with wines from other non-napa, non-bordeaux, regions in the 10-20 range. Maybe SPS is correct that there is some really good WA stuff in the 20 range that just doesnt make it into wide distribution. As a transplanted Washingtonian in Texas I can tell you it is very hard to find a non CSM or CCrest wines in the $20 range that is worth a darn and only some of the CCrest reserves at Costco in that price range have excited me. I would think that this would be something the leadership of Wa Wine marketing would want to take a long hard look at given that anything above 20 these days doesnt seem to sell very well.

Thomas @ The Blog Wine Cellar said...

I don't think Washington wines are overpriced. There are plenty of Cab's and Syrah's that drink brilliantly for under $30 in Washington. Napa is sometimes overpriced but Washington makes exceptional wine for a reasonable price.

Ben Simons said...

As a Texas wine drinker, I haven't had the opportunity to try very many sub $20 Washington wines. The ones that I have had have been all over the board, so I can understand the argument that there are better options from other regions in the $10-$15 range. That being said, I have found the wines that I tried that were more in the $30 price range to measure up quite well against similarly priced wines. In general, I am a big fan of Washington wine, and find it to be a good value.

Anonymous said...

It all simply begs the question what one condsiders expensive? Is it more than $20? $15? California( and elsewhere) offer so many opportunities below $10 that many wine buyers are accustomed to that price point. I think Washington does well at around $9 with several entries and then is a bit challenged in the $10-25 range. But makes a fine comeback in the above $25+ range ( no secret) , but those wines def can be considered expensive nowadays.

PaulG said...

Ben, I'm seeing a lot of good stuff from WA in the $12 to $20 range. Off the top of my head: Wines of Substance, a lot of good stuff from Precept brands (especially House Wines); Two Vines; Snoqualmie; Pacific Rim; Charles & Charles, Covey Run, new releases from Hyatt and Silver Lake, classics such as The Jack and Three Legged Red... I could keep going. This blog will do its best to highlight them frequently, as will my newspaper columns. The real problem is distribution outside the NW.

Andy Plymale said...

From my discussions with a couple wine distributors in my home town in southeastern Ohio (pop. 5,000), it's clear that when they think WA wine, they think Columbia Crest, and are high on the brand. (Incidently, while at US Tobacco, a former resident of my hometown was instrumental in the founding of the winery.)

Mike Kallay said...

I own a wine bar in San Diego and my perception of Washington wine is that they are overpriced. The context of that statement is that we only see wines from distributors here in the $20+ wholesale price point. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Washington have a flat pricing model to retailers & restaurants? That is, no price breaks for multiple cases? That's not the way it is here, so a retailer has to commit to 3 or 5 cases at a time to get the best price. That makes it harder to make any money on a wine in that $20+ category unless you commit to a big order. I'll tell you that we buy in the $7-$20 wholesale ($10-$35 retail) price points because that is where the majority of the wine in this country are sold. And, I simply don't see many wines from WA in this price range. As an example, I love the L'Ecole wines, but they come in north of $20 wholesale. I can get numerous wines from Paso, Alexander Valley, Napa, etc. that are as good are better and they're 30% less cost. Washington wines would be a hand sell for me here in California, but I relish those opportunities. We did very well with a Hedges wine a few years ago. Anyway, I think this whole question needs context, and my context is that we only see the cheap stuff, and the stuff just outside of the "sweet spot" of $10-$35 retail wines.

Lastly, I know that Napa & Sonoma are natural comparisons for WA wines because of the varietals, but I would say a better region for comparison would be Paso Robles because of both the varietals (the Syrahs are very similarly styled with WA) and more importantly the *state* of the wine industry. I think Paso and most of WA wine regions share that same *youth* in figuring things out, and IMHO, the wines should be priced as such. You'll have your anomalies like L'Aventure, but the majority of good Paso juice is in that middle price range that I mentioned.

I wish that I could see more wines down here from WA!

scott said...

A good value is when you buy something and get more than what you expected. You can get good or bad value at any price point regardless of what “D.C. from the Met” says.

If you make, sell, or buy wine as a commodity-like product then it should fetch commodity-like prices, and that’s perfectly fine. Just because you may not want to pony-up the cash, don’t insist that everything else is categorically over-priced. There is likely no other “product” out there that is more surrounded in subjectivity than wine, so assessing value can be tricky.

Anonymous said...

The deal is that CA has been nationally recognized as a major wine producer for 40 years. It didn't start expensive. It got that way after 25 years of demand pulling it there.

WA has been nationally recognized as a semi-major wine producer for ... what? 10 years? At most.

Prices in WA grew, on the coat tails of CA. And that hampered demand growth outside of the State.

Washingtonians support the industry and know the value is great, but prices weren't low enough for the rest of the country to catch on, too.

So a lot of people outside WA don't bother: it's still relatively unknown and an expensive risk.

The lower-priced stuff will help pull demand along, and eventually, it won't be perceived as expensive anymore -- when people are used to WA as a major wine producer.

Cinsault said...

My local Costco had a $9.99 Perrin 07 CDR Villages for sale a few weeks back and I m sorry but how do you compete with that. Safeway, yes Safeway, had a 07 Louis Jadot Macon Villages for $10.99, what a terrific white wine for the price. I think we would all agree that it’s a buyers market out there and I would agree with David E that there are very few WA wines I get excited about under $20 bucks, especially whites (well maybe the Ross Andrew Meadow for $18). I work in the WA wine industry and I have the chance to taste and drink a lot of WA wine, but as soon as I pay a visit to my local wine shop I head straight for the European section.

Jeff Lewis said...

Some $15 or less bottles (likely w/10% discount?, or maybe some on sale?) picked up recently in Seattle grocery stores, all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed and consider to be great values:

- Charles Smith, Kung Fu Girl Reisling, $11
- McKinley Springs, Viognier, $13
- Thurston Wolfe, PGV (pin gris/viogn), $ 13
- Syncline, Rose (cins/gren/mourv/...), $15
- Powers, Malbec, $12
- Waving Tree, Sangiovese, $12
- Tamarack, Firehouse Red (cab/syr/merl/...), $15
- Rulo, Syrca (syr/cab), $14

I'm not sure how many WA wine makers there are that would even want to grow to the size they would need to be able to produce and sell on a national/international scale, to be the next St Michelle or Columbia Crest.

Personally (selfishly?), I'm not all that concerned about it either, as long as WA wine makers like the ones above can hopefully make a decent living doing what they're doing. And how many of them could if they were selling at an even lower prices?

There definitely are a lot of great wine values offered from various places around the world, and I pick up and enjoy such bottles often. But I'm very happy and willing to spend more money supporting great local producers, especially those that put out such quality for a decent price. I'd say the same thing for why I like to shop at farmers markets, neighborhood grocery stores, coffee shops, etc

And if I really only had $7 or $8 to spend, ... I'd probably just pick up a great six pack of some local brew. Like this now empty Hale's Nut Brown Ale! Man, wish that wasn't the last one.

The Reverend said...

So, I'm a WA winemaker that's just moved down here to Texas because I believe that there is good wine to be made. We'll see...Having been on the inside of the Washington wine scene, I've seen how pricing decisions are made.

The majority of producers in WA (particularly Woodinville) produce such a tiny amount, that it's difficult to produce wine that can sell at a sub-$15 range, outside of the big boys. We just don't have the volume to support small margins.

In addition, there aren't enough vineyards producing grapes at low enough price point to help in this endeavor. Many of us want to produce wine for everyday consumption, but when the average price of grapes is $2500-$3800 per ton, you lose the ability to make a decent bottle of wine for less than $10-15 each.

WA doesn't yet have the amount of vineyards out there to support a statewide bulk program. There are several producers I know that are trying to do it, (Page Cellars IQ label $9 to name one great example, not to mention the Ghost label), but it is difficult.

What we need to do is support the people who are making great wine without overcharging for it. And let them know that we're willing to reward the ones that take the extra effort and risk to make quality value wines.

I still believe that the best value wines come from WA hands down. No where else can you actually taste the passion these people are putting into it, at such a price.

PS ex-WA

PaulG said...

Jeff, that's an excellent list, although most of these wines will be hard to find outside of WA. Reverend – those per ton grape prices seem a bit too high unless you are focused on Red Mountain and a handful of marquee vineyards. Which is another problem for small WA producers. Too many of them are drinking out of the same few wells. I am much more impressed these days when a new winery debuts with some unusual vineyard sources. They are out there, but you have to do the footwork to find them.

David E said...

Wow! Most of the interesting, inexpensive WA wines I know of have been mentioned up above, as well as a few that I think don't make the cut, and a couple I need to try. One brand that I'd add is Yellow Hawk Cellar. Their entire lineup is under $20 now, and the wines will stand with other Washington wines that cost much, much more. They're doing some of the best work for the money I've found yet.

One thing I've been looking around at for quite some time is Northwest Chardonnay that's good in the low teens. Any of dozens of Macon Chardonnays blow away the competiton at around $12. I'm happy to see that Argyle's Willamette Chardonnay has just been reduced to a price point where it competes; but I don't know how long that will last. Similarly, I've been looking for a Washington Malbec that holds a candle to any number of $12 Argentinian brands I've been working with, but so far, no dice.

Erika Szymanski said...

One more vote of agreement with Dave E's first comment and with those in agreement with him. Yes, there are plenty of Washington wines under $20. No, most of them aren't the exciting ones. Yes, most of the exciting ones are dramatically out of my price range, and out of the price range of most of my 20- and 30-something peers. My experience this weekend at Passport to Woodinville was indicative of my experience tasting at many wineries and wine shops over the year I've lived in Seattle: while many wineries are making a "bargain" wine in the $20 range, the ones I want to drink are all higher. In the lower price range, wines from outside Washington are a better value; for $12 I can purchase a wine from, say, Rioja or Argentina that is frankly more interesting than the $20 Washington "bargain."

There are always exceptions. One to add to the above list is Merry Cellars Gewurtztraminer, seriously a steal for $12. This is not a classic German-style Gewurtz, but that's what makes it such a bargain: a well-made but very different and therefore very interesting wine. For more detailed notes:

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