Malbec in Washington

I always like it when wine regions and really, entire state’s that want to grow grapes, try something different.  In this case, the state of Washington is growing and making wines from Malbec in a concerted effort and with a focus not found in the rest of North America.  Here’s what I think is important, but more than anything else it’s important to note that Malbec in Washington is something we’re going to be seeing in ever increasing amounts in the near future.

Video Transcript:

state of washington flagHi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I’m joined today by a bottle of the 2014 Big DeVine, which is a red wine from Columbia Valley. I wanted to take a moment to talk about red wine in Washington, because I think there’s a couple of interesting things going on.

First, this is a blend. As you might expect with the trade name, it doesn’t meet the requirements to have a single varietal listed on it. Quite honestly, I’m not sure that they would want to anyone, because this is 69% Malbec and 31% Syrah. We’ve talked in this space a number of times about the challenges of selling Syrah, and I think that’s something you see in the state of Washington.

If you think about the history of grape growing and really [inaudible 00:00:41] culture in the state of Washington, they burst onto the international wine scene in the 80s with Merlot. As you know, Merlot has really gone out of style. Washington was probably at the forefront of not sending it out of style but moving away from Merlot. Really in the 90s, they started the transition to Syrah. Quite honestly, I think Syrah still among the best versions of the varietal is from Washington. As far as what’s grown well in the state, I think Syrah grows better than anything else.

But at the same time, you’re now having that same problem that you saw with Merlot, where sales started to sputter with Syrah. Quite honestly, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell a $40 Cabernet than is a $40 Syrah. A number of ventnors in the state of Washington are trying to look and say, “We grow this grape really well. What could we grow just as well that might sell a little bit better?”

Interestingly enough, one of the things that you’re seeing start to happen is Malbec is starting to come to the forefront a little bit more. Malbec’s not the most planted grape in the state, and it’s not even the most expensive grape to farm. But what you are seeing that it’s maybe the fifth most planted grape in the state right now. It’s past Sangiovese, which is another grape that I thought would do quite well there, but just for one reason or another, sometimes I think in terms of pronunciation, it becomes challenging for people to order at restaurants or ask for it at a wine store. In any case, Malbec is actually garnering a larger price per acre than almost anything else in the state right now from a grower.

That’s another thing we should talk about for the state of Washington for a second. When you look at California/Oregon really, winery owns a vineyard, and then they also source from other vineyards around, or they’re 100% state. What you don’t see is that 100% state thing happening in the state of Washington. That’s in large part because barely any winery’s own vineyards. There’s some examples, of course, Chateau Ste. Michelle, who I talked about the Riesling a while ago, obviously owns a lot of vineyards.

As my recent trip to Walla Walla showed, almost no one that I met with owned vineyards. I asked a couple people about that. I checked Reninger at Reninger winery, who I believe he was the tenth bonded winery in the Walla Walla region, told me that really, the differences between Walla Walla and California is that they have professional farmers. There’s folks that own a lot of land usually in the hills around Walla Walla. They farmed onions and they farm all kinds of different crops. He’s been able to basically successfully say, “We’ll pay for x number of dollars per ace for you to farm grapes for us.” They’re able to do that.

Still, the winery’s have a lot of control about how exactly things are farmed. The folks at Sleight of Hand Cellars talked about exactly the same thing, that if they want something planted, no problem, they can have one of the three or four grape growers that they work with plant it and it’s not a big deal.

In many ways, that’s I think an advantage for the industry as a whole in the state of Washington compared to other parts that are just now coming into the wine elite and starting to go into the wider international wide trade. You have all these grapes that are being grown, and really if you want to try a couple bucks of Malbec, there’s not as much expense to doing so. There’s also some additional ways to get grapes from growers and vintners. If you’re advertising a vineyard on your space, there’s not as much chance of a different winery coming in or a bigger winery coming in and buying it.

That’s the state of Malbec in Washington. Prices are higher than almost any other varietal. Plantings are going up. It makes these not overly dense lush wines, but a nice mid palette red wine, which is increasingly what people are trying to buy and trying to create. It’s really a varietal to watch for growth. I think the one challenge that they’ll have moving forward is that most of the Malbec that we buy here in the United States comes up from South America, and it’s incredibly cheap.

The question really becomes, can you take a Malbec drinker that’s used to paying $7 or $10 per bottle and transition them into, I think this retails for $30, and it’s a blend. But can you take them and then eventually push them into buying a $45 Malbec from a high end grape grower and high end winery in the state of Washington? That’s up for debate.

Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, have a good one.

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