Home Wine Business Editorial Hospitality Great North West: Washington Wine Thrives as Other Regions Struggle

Great North West: Washington Wine Thrives as Other Regions Struggle

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How is the Evergreen State beating the odds in a challenging marketplace?

By Kathleen Willcox

 

There’s always that one person who manages to look like a model in every picture while everyone else is giving unkempt gremlin vibes. Washington is having that kind of  “maybe-she’s-born-with-it-maybe-it’s-Maybelline” moment as other regions struggle. 

Washington is the second-largest wine region in the U.S., behind California, with more than 1,070 licensed wineries and in excess of 60,000 acres under vine. The vast majority — 90% — of the wineries there are small, family-owned operations producing less than 5,000 cases per year. 

The latest direct-to-consumer report from Sovos ShipCompliant and WineBusiness Analytics was a grim read for everyone, save Washington winemakers. 

Volume dropped by 6.5% overall, and value essentially flat-lined with a 0.1% uptick. But in Washington, the shipment value of wine grew 11%, and volume was up 5.5%, which means the average bottle price was up about 5% to $39.90 year-over-year. 

What’s behind Washington’s success in the DTC market and beyond?

The Price Is Right 

Washington sells a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends. A little more than half of Washington wineries make a Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than one-third make a red blend. And these wines are priced competitively.  

Kiona tasting room

“There’s a hole in the market for estate-grown, high-end, domestically produced wine from a recognized region,” says JJ Williams, general manager at his family’s Kiona Vineyards and Winery in the Red Mountain AVA. “We have six products priced for less than $20, and they all sell well. But the growth area we’ve seen recently is in the $25 to $35 segment for Cabernet and red blends. It’s a sweet spot where you’re priced above commodity wines and well below many premium options.”

Kristina Kelley, Washington State Wine Commission’s executive director, agrees.

“We are seeing growth in the $15 to $25 price range,” Kelley notes. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all saw double digit growth year-over-year in this price range.”

Last year, Washington wine in that $15 to $25 sweet spot surged 62% year-over-year, she says.  

Wineries Are Investing in Experiences

But even if the price is right, simply serving wine in a bare bones tasting room doesn’t cut it anymore. 

Dinner party at Fidelitas

“In April 2023, we opened a new tasting room in Woodinville, with about eight times the space we had before,” says Will Hoppes, managing director of Fidélitas Wines (also in Red Mountain), which sells about 70% of its wines DTC. “We saw our foot traffic more than double. It helps that we are in a space with six other wine tenants. It’s harder than ever to hold onto wine club members, but by investing in the tasting room, holding creative wine events and wine dinners, and by offering things like live music, we’ve seen growth in our tasting room sales, which then keeps our wine club and DTC sales growing and strong.”

Specialized events have certainly become a hook for broader sales at the Browne Family label of wine and spirits in Washington, says Precept Wine & Spirits chief marketing officer Alex Evans. (Browne is under Precept’s umbrella of American wineries, which also includes wineries in Oregon, Idaho and New Mexico). 

“Experiences beyond traditional tasting are definitely a draw,” Evans says. “We’ve seen wine and chocolate pairings, blending events, exclusive seating reservations and specialized experiences such as a secret bar at Browne Family in Bellevue really bring people in.”

Sunday Paella at Valdemar Estate

At Walla Walla’s Valdemar Estates, CEO and owner Jesús Martinez Bujanda says that tentpole events and even throwing open the gates to other beverage options has padded their bottom line.

“Our masquerade party, [which took place on March 23] sold out weeks [in advance] with 160 people,” he notes. “And we found that when we opened a new location in Woodinville, offering a full tapas restaurant with craft cocktails and beers along with wine attracted both locals and tourists.”

The entire region’s numbers reflect these anecdotal observations, Kelley says. 

“Tasting room visitors and tasting room sales were up in Woodinville and Walla Walla year-over-year,” Kelley says. 

Giving People What They Want

In this hyper-competitive sales environment, competitively priced wine and events help, but wineries have to do more. 

“We leverage insights and preferences from our tasting room guests to drive strategic decisions for our brands across wholesale and DTC sales,” says Evans. “There are numerous Browne Family wholesale products — Forest Project, Do Epic Shit, Vanilla Bean Whiskey and aromatic white wines — that have found their way to the grocery store shelves thanks to their success among our tasting rooms.”

Kiona, meanwhile, is aggressively democratic in its offerings.

“There’s a certain stigma among serious wine producers in making affordable wines,” Williams says. “But there have been two times in the past 15 years when I’ve been really glad that we have more affordable products. During downturns people don’t drink less, but they trade down.”

In the wine industry, $20 doesn’t feel like a lot for a bottle of wine, Williams admits.

“But not everyone can spend $90 on a bottle of Cabernet,” Williams points out. “Most people wouldn’t even spend $40 on a Cabernet. Because we have 272 acres of great vineyards, we can produce great wines at the higher end of the market, but also produce high-quality wines at lower price points as well.”

If sales are any indication, appealing to as broad of an audience as possible — with a range of well-made wines, prices, events and even offerings that don’t include wine — seems to be the only formula that is moving bottles in the U.S. right now. 

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

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