Washington State confirms UK commitment

Washington State Wine Commission has stressed it is “committed for the long-term” as the body seeks to bolster its UK presence following the collapse of two major importers.

Photo credit: Sara McCallister

Photo credit: Sara McCallister

Last year saw both D&D Wines International and Stratford’s Wine Agencies go into administration, leaving – among several other Washington State casualties – one of its biggest producers, Columbia Crest, without UK representation.

As the state showed its wines jointly with Oregon at a London trade tasting this week, Chris Stone, vice-president of marketing & communication for the Washington State Wine Commission, highlighted key distinctions between the two states’ wine offers.

“We’ve never been competitors really,” he stressed, noting that in contrast to Oregon’s strong focus on Pinot Noir – 66% of its total plantings – Washington’s attention is divided more widely among a very different set of grape varieties.

With Cabernet Sauvignon dominating Washington’s plantings at 25%, most of the state’s remaining vineyard is split between Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling.

Summed up this diversity as “a blessing and a curse,” Stone admitted to the drinks business: “There has been some pressure to decide what we want to be known for, but we’re kind of resisting that for a longer term plan”

Instead, he suggested: “Ultimately what we’re becoming known for is a style: we’re the perfect balance between New World ripe, pure fruit and Old World acid and structure. That’s what we’ve been hearing from the trade.”

While both Oregon and Washington State both relinquish the lower end of the wine market to countries capable of producing larger volumes at a cheaper price, Stone remarked that Washington’s entry level is slightly more accessible than that of its Pacific Northwest neighbour.

“Our entry level is $8 in the US,” he noted, pointing to “a handful” of producers with the volumes needed to meet supermarket requirements. Nevertheless, he acknowledged: “Most of our producers are smaller and going after the high end on-premise.”

Emphasising the UK’s importance to the state’s wider export ambitions, Stone counted it among the “small handful of in the globe that are important because they are influential beyond their borders.”

Despite this, the Washington State Wine Commission has chosen to exhibit at ProWein instead of the London International Wine Fair this year. In general, however, Stone outlined a shift away from large trade fairs to targeting “media influencers” and hosting trade trips.

Elsewhere, he pointed to a “strong programme” in Tokyo, as well as “exploratory work” in Shanghai, although Vinexpo Hong Kong remains the Commission’s main investment in Asia. It is also developing a programme in Seoul to tap into the South Korean market.

At home, Washington State holds a 4% share of the US market, which Stone confirmed “is growing fast”. In fact, he remarked: “The buzz about Washington in America has never been higher.

“Ten years ago it was hard even to get an appointment, but over time we’ve proved ourselves over and over and now the number of producers has grown too so people are starting to take note.”

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