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Friday, March 5, 2010

Washington Wines: An Inside Look

Riesling grapes at Bonair Winery, Yakima River...
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Dave Pirwitz of DJP Selections is a distributor specializing in Northwest wines, almost entirely from Washington. TWAV interviewed Dave to get an insider’s view of the Washington wine scene.

TWAV: What do you like about Washington wines?

Pirwitz: Generally, Washington wines tend to be of high quality, especially relative to their price point, and offer very broad, very well balanced and distinctive taste profiles, when compared to wines from other regions.  Like wines from any other region, though, Washington wines are not all created equally. 

My particular favorites, many of which are the wines we are bringing into the state, are those that are made in small quantities, by winemakers that are passionate and true to the fruit and the terroir of the areas where the fruit is sourced.  These artisanal producers use the simple, traditional approaches of growing or sourcing the highest quality fruit available, treating that fruit with kid gloves during crush and fermentation, and using well thought out aging regimes in high quality tanks and barrels.

With these wines, you don't usually see the manipulation of the fruit through the use of high tech additives or short cut techniques that are frequently employed in the production of high volume wines.  The resulting limited production wines are beautiful, expressive, complex, well structured and very, very tasty.

TWAV: Have you noticed an upward trend in sales or interest in Washington wines?

Pirwitz: Absolutely, and we hope that we are helping to drive that trend by focusing almost exclusively on these limited production wines from Washington state.  I think the interest was always there but very few of these wines were making it to Ohio.  Partly because there is not a lot of wine available for distribution and partly because the lower volumes and variability of supply are not attractive to larger distributors. 

When we started our market research a couple of years ago, though, the industry told us that they were hungry for wines of this quality at reasonable prices.  Our book focuses on those wines that are under $30 with a large portion under $20 retail, but that drink like ones that cost twice as much from France, Italy or California, for example.

TWAV: What makes the wines of Washington unique?

Pirwitz: While we are blessed with a large number of dedicated, innovative and passionate winemakers here in Washington, a great wine always starts with great fruit.  The unique geographic aspect, climate and soils of Washington create the perfect environment for growing above average wine grapes.
 
Even within Washington, there are unique microclimates and soil profiles that create ideal conditions for different grapes.  As to the question of why so many uniquely great values come out of Washington, I've been told it has to do in great part with the cost of vineyard land.

Land values are relatively low because these growing areas don't attract large populations of people, as is the case in many of the other prime growing regions around the world.  These areas are in the high desert of Eastern Washington which is hot and dry during much of the growing season and ranges from cool, windy and dreary to outright tundra the rest of the year. 

TWAV: You mentioned  Washington wines getting more exposure and interest in the Toledo area. To what do you attribute that?

Pirwitz: Part of it is the national trend toward Washington wines in general.  Washington is a relative newcomer to many wine consumers and has nowhere to go but up;  at over 600 brands, Washington is still at only 1/16th the production level of California.  So as good press and market penetration continue to grow for Washington wines so do the general consumer's opportunities to taste and fall in love with these wines.  
Up until recently, the general consumer has mostly been exposed to wines made by Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia, Columbia Crest and the like and while those can be great wines too, most are high-production value wines (there are certainly some premium and reserve exceptions but these rarely make it out of the state), and do not define what Washington wines are anymore than Mondavi, Crane Lake, Gallo or the many Coastal brands define California wines. 

As consumers have more opportunities to taste the next level of quality, their perception of what Washington wine is becoming dramatically more favorable. 

That's where we come in.  For the last 2 years, Jan and I have been relentlessly combing the state of Washington, painstakingly sacrificing our palates (its a tough job but someone has to do it) to put together a book focused on some of the best small lot wineries in the state.
 
The local Toledo area market has been very welcoming and most all of the fine wine shops and a few select restaurants are now offering a large selection of these wines.  In addition to a number of wine shop tasting events, we were happy to also be asked to contribute to the benefit event scene in the Toledo area over the last several months where we poured a large number of all Washington wine lineups at the March of Dimes, Mobile Meals, Kidney Foundation and YMCA wine galas.  The wines were received to accolades and many of our retailers have reported a surge in sales and requests for some of the brands we featured.  It is very satisfying that my home town seems to be enjoying these wines as much as we do.

TWAV: Have you noticed any trends with Washington wines?

Pirwitz: I think the biggest trend is one of innovation in general.  More and more, winemakers seem to be experimenting with lesser known varietals, seeing what works best in which areas and where they can get the best expression of the fruit.  While the state is best know for its Rieslings, Chardonnays, Cabs, Merlots, Bordeaux Blends and Syrahs, we have a lot of wines in our book that fall into the more esoteric categories such as Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Carmenere, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Blau Franc/Lemberger, Ice Wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Grenache, Roussane, Marsanne, Viognier, Port blends, Rhone blends, Bordeaux blends, Tuscan blends, Piedmont blends, etc.
 
As we discussed, many think the next big Washington darling might be Malbec and there are some very nice examples of this hitting the market right now.  Most of these are at the $20 and above price point though, and as you might expect, are totally different types of wine than the South American Malbecs that have been popular over the last several years at the lower end of the market.  Though I have seen just a couple so far, I wouldn't doubt that we start to see even more along this vein with varietals like Albariňo, Grüner, Mourvedre, and Symphony.

TWAV: Do you have any favorite WA wine, varietal or producer?
 
Pirwitz: That's a tough one, it's like asking to pick a favorite kid, but lately I have been a big fan of a couple of the big, rich Cabernet Francs that have been coming out of the state's warmer areas.  Gilbert Cellars and Covington Cellars are two excellent examples. 

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