Washington Wines Get Star Power

Geoff Tate Insania
Geoff Tate, of the local band Queensrÿche, has launched his own wine label, Insania, with Three Rivers Winery.

For a while, it seemed as if a new winery was opening every few days in Washington.

Glamorous winery launch parties featured lush catering, Cirque du Soleil-caliber entertainment and expensive gifts for guests. Pro golfers, dentists and movie stars were making the drive over the Cascades or flying to eastern Washington to rack their new barrels and watch over the crush. Owning a winery appeared to be the new yacht among many affluent. In the space of one year, 2005 to 2006, 100 wineries were launched. Now, there are about 680 wineries in Washington state alone, according to the Washington Wine Commission.

But, along with the booming economy, the grape rush is over—for now. Commission officials say they’ve seen a slowing of new license applications and it’s become more difficult to sell the thousands of cases those wine houses produce.

“I haven’t heard of as many wineries for sure starting up right now,” says Gilles Nicault, who makes some of the most prestigious wine in Washington state for Long Shadows Wineries. “It’s pretty easy to see right now there are enough wineries for the moment.”

But he adds that wineries and vineyards are quietly putting themselves up for sale—and they’re not just small players. Still, winemakers have to be an optimistic bunch. They work years ahead of themselves, ordering barrels and contracting vineyards. And wine experts say it’s not bad for everyone: Consumers can get their hands on great wine for less these days.

To survive in this increasingly tough market, shrewd winemakers are using new marketing tactics to sell off vintages before the next batch of juice comes in fresh from the vines. Some things wineries are trying: lower prices, celebrities and social media.

Juice Dump

Nowadays, vineyard managers are actively pursuing new winemakers they wouldn’t have considered selling their A-list grapes to a few years ago. And some grapes are going unsold.

For oenophiles, now is the time to buy. Once-expensive bottles are coming down to more affordable price points and affordable wines are getting slashed, too.

“They are making a wine that was supposed to be a $30 and it’s going to be $15,” says Paul Gregutt, a well-known wine writer and blogger who splits his time between a house in Seattle and a cottage in Waitsburg near Walla Walla. He says wineries are offering deals, and he’s seeing many new labels popping up.

Entrepreneurs are buying up bulk wine, bottling it and slapping on a brand. What’s in the bottle of some of those value wines is the exact same libation as, or something close to, what’s in well-known expensive bottlings. In Walla Walla, Sleight of Hand Cellars has seen brisk sales of its second label, called Renegade Wine Co., using other wineries’ wine.

“They [other wineries] can’t afford to bottle them, they are sitting on too much inventory or they don’t want to bottle more wine,” says winemaker Trey Busch.

The wineries selling off their wine remain anonymous, but Busch says word of mouth and the quality is proving high-value wine still sells. His last bottling of 1,400 cases went on sale in June and sold out in mid-August. Renegade costs about $10 in Seattle shops and the reserve label can be found for $18 to $20.

But Busch says that outcome doesn’t happen without relationships. Busch spends much of his time traveling to his different markets across the country. He’s seeing many vintages from 2002 and 2003 from other Washington wineries still lingering on the shelf.

“They are not out here shaking hands, making relationships with people and following up with these people to make sure these wines are selling,” Busch notes. “It’s easy to make it but hard to sell it these days.”

Celebrity Crush

Increasingly, Washington winemakers are dawing on star power to push out more bottles. The actor Kyle MacLachlan, a Yakima native famous for his roles in Twin Peaks and Desperate Housewives, has started a label in collaboration with Dunham Cellars called Pursued by Bear. Walla Walla-raised football star Drew McQueen Bledsoe has returned to his boyhood town to produce a new wine named Doubleback. And even rocker Geoff Tate of the band Queensrÿche has put his name behind a bottle with Three Rivers Winery called Insania.

These celebrity projects have their ups and downs. Three Rivers Winery says it’s drawing in a new crowd by the association with Tate—new, edgier fans who wouldn’t have otherwise stopped at the stately vineyard and golf course just outside of Walla Walla. Many wine fans seem skeptical of the true quality of celeb labels. Still, some stars are pouring quality ingredients into their labels, and succeeding in the marketplace, despite the bad economy. Take actor Kyle MacLachlan and his project in Walla Walla.

Pursued by Bear
Kyle MacLachlan
Actor Kyle MacLachlan, a Yakima native, partnered with Dunham Cellars to create the Pursued By Bear label. (MacLachlan photo by Greg Gorman)

“We are just kind of full steam ahead,” MacLachlan says. “We work so far in the future. I order barrels three years in advance to when the wine will be released.”

MacLachlan adds what has been challenging is the amount of road time required to promote his wine. “They take the meeting because of who I am,” he says. “Then they taste the wine and go, ‘Wow, this is better than I thought.’”

And MacLachlan says those chefs and sommeliers are buying more wine after their first order. He is also increasing the number of locations where you can find Pursued by Bear in Seattle, Portland, L.A., New York and Washington, D.C.

MacLachlan states the best thing about the Washington wine industry, and Walla Walla winemakers in particular, is there is room for everybody, even in difficult times. “That’s one of the things that I really love about Walla Walla; there is an all-for-one attitude up there,” he says.

Wine Social

To help boost sales, some winemakers are quickly adopting social media and new forums to promote their wines, while others are hiring their children or their friends to navigate the scores of wine bloggers requesting free samples. This June, about 300 wine bloggers descended upon Walla Walla to sip, swirl and post frequent updates on Twitter and Facebook. JJ Williams’ family owns a winery on the dusty eastern Washington hill called Red Mountain. Williams, 23, is the third generation of his family working full-time in the business. And he’s in charge of dealing with the bloggers. Williams says wine bloggers can’t be ignored. They are continuing to grow in numbers and popularity. That’s forcing wineries to get savvy and give them information, tours and samples. It’s his job to sort out which blogs are legit. He says it’s very different from sending wine to an established wine critic.

“It’s difficult because you don’t know who you are sending wine to,” he explains. “You don’t know what their palate is. Really the nature of blogging is that anyone can have a voice and everyone has an opinion.”

Williams says keeping up with the bloggers can get expensive. It’s also hard to track sales stimulated by blogs. But he notes word of mouth already sells a lot of wine—and blogging is just another way that happens.

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