There has never been a better time for Washington State wines around the world with exports at a record high and a real and growing demand from the premium wine buying community in the UK. Ahead of next week’s ‘Unsung Heroes’ tasting we talk to Doug Marshall, senior international marketing manager, about Washington State Wine’s export strategy and the styles of wine that are now finding themselves onto lists in all the right restaurants and bars.
You can discover for yourself what all the fuss is about for Washington State wines at its Unsung Heroes tasting on March 10 in London.
Can you talk us through the 2019 performance for the state in terms of production for the latest harvest?
At present we don’t have final data yet for the 2019 harvest (we are expecting it in early March), but we are delighted to report that winemakers are excited about the fruit from 2019 and report that quality is very high. We are seeing smaller berry size across the state, which accounts for concentrated flavour and high quality.
How is your export performance?
Exports of Washington wines are at an all-time high around the globe. In key markets, such as Canada, the UK, South Korea, the Nordics and Japan, growth over the past five years is close to 70%, and in the UK we’ve seen nearly 35% growth in the same time period.
Our expectations are that this is just the beginning of growth of Washington wines as key exporting wineries make international markets a larger focus in their global strategies. Many of our mid-sized wineries are also beginning to seek new outlets for diversification. So the future for Washington State Wine in export is very bright.
Which styles of wine from Washington are doing the best in export in terms of colour, variety an region?
We don’t have statistics about specific varieties in regards to exports, but it’s clear Cabernet Sauvignon leads the pack as it does domestically. Making up nearly 30%of our total production, Cabernet truly is king in our region.
That said, different markets view different varieties differently. In the UK for example, Syrah has made trade, media and consumers alike stand up and take notice. Equally our Chardonnay, Merlot and Rieslings all carry excellent reputations around the world and make up 82% of all production in the region when included with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Which are your best export countries and why?
Canada sits as the largest export market for Washington State Wine, due in major part to the country’s proximity to the United States and affinity for craft and premium beverages. After Canada, Germany, Scandinavia, South Korea and Japan, together, make up more than 50% of all exports including the UK.
We believe that a major factor in our success in these markets comes down to populations that possess a general willingness to explore beyond traditional regions. One of our core strategies is to simply get more Washington wine in front of key trade and media, using an array of different tactics. We typically see a high conversion rate once people actually taste in their quest for new, exciting wines.
What are the fastest growing segments in terms of price points in your key export markets and is that changing?
Over its 50-year history, Washington has been known, both domestically and internationally, as a quality premium wine region, with most SKUs in the London market landing between £20 to £35 pounds. However, like many regions whose reputation is built on quality and “punching outside of its weight class” we are seeing key markets pick up more demand options for more accessible price points.
It’s why I expect to see more wines increasingly appearing in the major retail markets. But, for now, Washington’s core business is still largely premium wines priced honestly for their high quality. That said, we are seeing a number of SKUs from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Wines of Substance, Hedges Family Winery and Charles Smith Wines do great work making sure that consumers have consistent access to great glass-pours and bottle options.
What different activities are you doing in certain export markets to generate sales?
In the UK, we have our annual Washington State Wine tasting at The Hansom, St Pancras on March 10. We will also host an after party for the trade as an opportunity to shed some Washingtonian hospitality with our friends in the UK. The following day we will have a dedicated importer tasting in London followed by dedicated trips to Washington in the spring and summer.
What perception do you find potential buyers have of Washington wines around the world?
When I bring wine professionals from around the world to Washington, there are two remarks that always pop up like clockwork: “freshness” and having a “balance between flavour and structure”.
When people speak of “freshness” in Washington wines, they often also call the wines “vibrant” or “alive”, this is often associated with the acidity that Washington wines carry due to our climate and large diurnal swings in temperature during the growing season. But goes beyond this and into something a little more abstract that seems to mean something different to everyone.
As for the balance between flavour and structure, when we as wine professionals talk about wine, we inevitably end up comparing one wine region to another, and what I constantly hear from wine professionals around the world is that many of the wines from our region carry a unique blend of New World fruit alongside the Old World’s natural structure and acidity.
Ripe, fruit flavours regularly come through backed by natural tannin from thick skins and small berries, alongside crisp acidity created by day time and night time temperature swings and the overall temperature dropping significantly as we stretch into the harvest.
What are the good impressions you find buyers and sommeliers have towards Washington?
I think the one of the first things that people associate with Washington wine is it’s a new breed of wine growing regions focused on innovation and challenging the status quo. Seattle is a global hub for innovation with many of the world’s largest and fastest growing companies in our back yard, so it’s no wonder that our wineries approach wine growing and winemaking with a similar desire to challenge the tradition and create something of their own.
What are the areas you need to work harder to get the key messages across?
Within the trade, our constant effort is two-fold. First get the first glass or bottle of Washington wine into a consumer’s mouth, and second, make sure they know that it is from Washington State!
We regularly find around the world that conversion rates are very high after a customer has tasted a wine from Washington, but we have to make sure that they have made that connection with the local identity. With an industry so diverse and sometimes complex to understand, helping a consumer know what they like is critical to our success in Washington.
Why are you hosting your tasting in the UK and what do you hope to get out of it?
There are so many stories to tell in Washington with the people, the grapes, the landscapes; these are the unsung heroes of American wine that we hope to connect with the dynamic wine trade we have discovered in the UK.
What are the key people you hope to attend?
Each winery has their own objectives but considering that 90% of wineries in Washington are family run operations, the UK on-trade is definitely a key focus for many of the representatives presenting their wines at the tasting. But with a number of Washington’s larger wineries expanding their focus on getting a consumer to buy their first bottle of Washington wine, we do hope to see turnout from key retailers in the UK as well.
Any masterclasses to look out for?
Definitely. We’ll be hosting a masterclass on the terroirs of Washington with Dr Jamie Goode who will also co-host a Washington 101 masterclass detailing everything you need to know about the state.
Where would you like to see Washington in five years’ time in terms of exports, awareness and perception in your growth key markets?
If trends and recent figures continue to work in our favour, we aim to double international exports of Washington State wine in the next five years. This ambition is in line with more established brands in the state but also, we want to ensure we have paved a solid path to let the emerging and re-emerging wineries in Washington, who we consider to be the unsung heroes of American wine, shine in the markets where they can succeed.
We also want to see more recognition of Washington itself and not just being grouped under “American Wine” but with our own regionally defined identity.
- The Washington State Unsung Heroes tasting takes place on March 10 at Hansom, Kings Cross Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, NW1 2AR between 10am and 5.30pm. To register click here.
Due to the recent developments with the Covid-19 virus extra measures are being put in place to ensure a comfortable tasting for everyone including: hand sanitiser at the entrance of the tasting, and there will be multiple sanitisation stations throughout the tasting; individual spittoon cups; additional cleaning staff & increased routine checks.