thumbing his nose at washington?

Monday, October 04, 2010


My friend and colleague Steve Heimoff, who, like me, writes for the Wine Enthusiast and serves on its tasting panel, has fired a major shot across the Washington bow with his Friday blog entry. Headlined “Washington State: a hard sell”, the thrust of his remarks seemed to be summed up with these few lines.

“I have to say the Washingtonians always seem to have a kind of resentment toward California,” he writes. “On the one hand they’re always reminding us here in the Golden State that California’s too hot to make balanced grapes, our wines are too alcoholic and obvious, they lack elegance, we’re on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert or something like that. Whereas they, Washington State, are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, they make more balanced wines, et cetera."

“On the other hand," Heimoff continues, "California sells, what? Ten times more wine than Washington State. California wine is famous all over the world, while Washington wine isn’t. California wine has the ‘profile’ that Washington wine doesn’t, and the Washingtonians don’t like that, but don’t know quite what to do about it.”

Once my initial astonishment passed, and I had weighed in with my response, I began to think more seriously about Heimoff’s point. At first I thought he must be responding to some remark or other that I had made in print or blog, because it is true, I frequently take a shot at California. I confess it has been an ongoing habit to do so, but generally in service of a specific argument. And I have backed way off in recent months. In fact, my own Preface to the revised second edition of “Washington Wines & Wineries” includes these lines. “Washington State wines have made their entrance upon the world stage, and no longer need to stand shyly in the corner while some marquee player from California hogs the spotlight... Washington has moved out of the shadow of California.” Not a shot – more of a “I am Washington; hear me roar!” type of a statement.

So it turns out that it wasn’t me who poked a stick into the Heimoff hive. Apparently his ire was raised by what he heard from someone who attended last week’s well-publicized, buyers’ road trip through Washington wine country. Sponsored and organized by the Washington Wine Commission, the four-day marathon brought more than three dozen wine buyers from around the country to the wineries and vineyards of this state. The purpose was to pry some of their collective $750 million annual wine-buying dollars (the Commission’s figure) out of their California-centric wallets.

Members of the press are never invited on such trips, presumably for fear of tampering with the message being so carefully presented. It’s too bad, because the intense and creative schedule included a great many fascinating and instructive seminars, tastings, and opportunities to learn about the state of the art here in Washington. Speaking for myself, I would have welcomed the chance to tag along, as I would have learned as much (or more) in a week as I can possibly organize on my own in a year.

I did get a good overview of the agenda from one member of the buyer corps, who shed some light on the Heimoff tirade. Apparently, more than a few of the winemakers and other speakers on the tour took potshots at California. This happened so frequently that it struck many of the visitors as excessively defensive, and kind of bush league. My source felt that such sniping was not only unnecessary, but also counter-productive. His feeling is that Washington does not need to bash California to make its strengths known. And I totally concur.

So on reflection, Steve Heimoff has done us a favor, and I for one will confine my future California bashing to an occasional jibe, in the spirit of camaraderie. A joke between equals if you will. And hopefully Heimoff will look up the actual definition of “rain shadow”. And in a perfect world, wine writers who specialize in covering Washington state wines and wineries will get invited on trips that will help them to do the best possible job.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read the same article and initially got my back up. But then I thought about our recent two week Vacation in California, which included 5 nights in Napa and 3 in Paso Robles, where our tastings started at 10 a.m. and continued until 5 or 6 p.m. After talking with tasting room staff and other visitors in tasting rooms, I could see this California-centric mind set, if only because so many people had absolutely no clue about NW wines. We are from the Portland area and have enjoyed wine trips throughout the NW and have a pretty good knowledge of the wine regions, wineries, winemakers and wines in our extended back yard. There were exceptions but I was shocked on our vacation to hear people, even tasting room staff, who presumably have some professional interest in developing a basic knowledge about wine regions, say "Walla what?"

terroirist said...

Sometimes there's a fine line between what could be perceived as "bashing" and just trying to communicate "how we're different". The principal differences as I see them (Napa vs. Columbia Valley) are latitude, which, during the growing season affects sun angle and intensity and length of day, our own-rooted vines, and their marine influence (more fog, humidity, less diurnal variation, etc.).

Bob R. said...

There is enough good wine in both California and Washington that folks don't need to bash each other. I enjoyed a 2004 Far Niente Chard last night as well as a Kent Rasmussen Pinot Noir a few nights earlier. They were as good as the Forgeron Klipsun Vineyard Merlot I tasted at the winery a couple weeks ago while in Walla What.

Anonymous said...

Remember California used to get bashed by the French until Chateau Montelina showed them up. Its just a natural progression for the newbie to have to fight for the deserved recognition.

Wilf Krutzmann said...

The truth lies in the product. Make a good one and people will find you. On the other side of the coin, I do not like it when marketing gurus try to convince you that "our wines are just like.... " I detest reading about the Okanagan Valley in BC referred to "as the Napa of the North". It isn't and never will be. Unless of course there is some truth in this global warming thing. But judging by the lack of maturity in the grapes this year it ain't happening yet.

WCVR said...

Great write-up, Paul. You'd rarely hear a Burgundian winemaker trying to wind up the Bordelais. They have bigger fish to fry than other French wine regions with the battle against "New World" regions over their prime export markets.

However, the difference for Washington is that they're fighting over domestic dollars within the US, which California clearly dominates. Washington needs to get it's message heard without sounding like the runt brother that mom never gave any attention to.

Stand on your own merits, Washington. Forget the bulk glut, focus on quality and pull off an Oregonian-style coup.

Anonymous said...

As an attendee, I'm surprised to see how this discussion is going, especially since neither Steve nor Paul were there. I guess stirring a pot is an effective way of creating blog traffic. Truth is, whether California (really Napa) likes it or not, they are the benchmark American wine region, so any emerging region is justified in using it as reference point. All I heard in the formal presentations were fact-based comparisons between CA and WA (rainfall amounts and timing, hours of sunshine during growing season, diurnal temperatures, own rooted vines, no pheloxera, etc.) Pretty standard stuff. If there was any "bashing," it must have happened outside of the presentations. Sounds like some folks need to grow another layer of skin.

PaulG said...

Anon, I can't tell from your post exactly what your gripe is. I made it clear that I did not attend, and that I would have loved the opportunity to do so. You could not have been at every event because you were split into small groups, so some of the bashing that I was told about may well have happened when you were not present. In any event, my blog was a direct response to the blog by Steve – not an attempt to stir the pot, but rather to answer what I felt were direct criticisms. And yes, creating effective blog traffic is certainly a goal; otherwise, why bother to blog at all?

Anonymous said...

My gripe is that you are reporting via another source that "more than a few" took potshots at CA. That comes off sounding like "many" or "most." Granted that I didn't attend all of the sessions because of the structure of the event, but it just didn't happen in the sessions my groups participated in. I would love to hear, specifically, what potshots were reportedly taken. If WA wineries need a lesson in what NOT to say in public, this would be a good time to learn it.

Erika Szymanski said...

Regardless of whether or not anyone bashed anyone else, the point still stands: California is the flagship American wine state. In terms of quantity and history, this seems natural. It seems equally natural that Washington (and New York, and heck, maybe even Virginia if those Norton-lovers keep multiplying) will earn names for themselves as their industries become better developed. This is already happening in Oregon, isn't it? California will likely always attract more attention in terms of numbers: their wineries tend to be larger (WA being the home of the tiny winery perhaps more than any other major winemaking state) and lots of (sometimes less well-educated) palates like the big flavors that come from California. Nothing wrong with that.

As someone here has already said, isn't this a good time to replay the old "There's room enough for both of us" tune? Once they know we're here -- and we're working on that -- people who want Washington-style flavors will come North. The worst mistake Washington could make, for that reason, I think, is to try to be like California.

PaulG said...

Anon, I'd love to pass along specifics, but I'm not a psychic, and I wasn't there. Erika, I'm hopeful that the days of Washington trying to be like California are quickly passing. That is the main thrust of my new book. But there was every reason to emulate (if not imitate) California 35 years ago. First of all, that's where all the expertise resided. Winemakers got their education at UC Davis and then trundled up here to make wine. Grape vine cuttings came from California nurseries. Vineyard management practices were based on California soils and climate conditions. It's actually happened very quickly that Washington has developed the knowledge and resources to educate up and coming winemakers on how to make Washington wines. That's one main reason why quality has soared.

Anonymous said...

Just for clarification, the comparitive statements made were to show how WA is uniquely DIFFERENT than CA. Since most wine consumers are familiar with CA wines, it is the best point of reference. Not in our lifetime, but someday, it may be the other way around. I hope when that time comes, WA winemakers will welcome the comparison, not bristle at it.

Anonymous said...

Let me remind consumers what happens when our 'Little Washington Wineries' gain exposure: Increased demand for a limited supply, which takes Washington out of the value category. IF you don't believe me you haven't been comparing prices honestly. Look at the rankings in the print periodicals and pricetags. As a consumer this is fine with me. Look in your wallet after you line your dinner party with respectable Cali cabs, and then look at your wallet after the same quality from Wa. I'll take the latter and take the chip off of my shoulder. Be careful what you (as a consumer) wish for.

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