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Washington Wine, Part 2: Top Producers Diversify Their Portfolios

May 7, 2021

The Washington wine industry saw mixed results last year, as the pandemic raised a host of unforeseen challenges. This year, the state’s key players are looking to connect with consumers across new product segments, varietals, and appellations to build momentum for the business.

In recent years, Washington’s appellations have come into the spotlight, showcasing the diversity of the region’s vineyards. The Columbia Valley is by far the state’s largest AVA, and many of the nearly 1,000 Washington wineries are located there. The state has 13 other AVAs, including Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley. These and others have been turning out a broad range of super-premium wines.

At House of Smith, owner Charles Smith is particularly eager to showcase the state’s Pinot Noir. “We’re focused on Golden West Pinot Noir ($20) and one of the newest AVAs in Washington, Royal Slope,” he says. “There’s been this false belief that you can’t grow great Pinot Noir in Washington. Golden West Pinot Noir began with the idea that where great Chardonnay grows, so does Pinot Noir.” In the last two years, House of Smith has also launched Substance Chardonnay as a partner label to its Substance Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Popup ($15), a single-vineyard sparkling Chardonnay. Substance jumped 16% to 140,000 cases last year, according to Impact Databank.

Aaron Wood-Snyderman, wine director for Metropolitan Grill in Seattle, has seen an evolution in varietal demand. His restaurant carries more than 3,000 wine labels, and wines from Washington comprise more than 50% of wine sales. “While Bordeaux varietals and blends were the first red wines out of Washington to gain national and international awareness, it’s really the Rhône varietals (from Washington) that are making waves right now,” he says. “Syrah and Grenache grow exceptionally well across the entire state, and both—but particularly Syrah—have found a home in Walla Walla.” Other varietals are also performing well at Metropolitan Grill. “I’m seeing huge growth in wineries that produce exceptional versions of lesser-known varietals like Grüner Veltliner, Gamay, Tannat, Cinsault, etc.,” Wood-Snyderman says.

Washington category leader Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has been busy tailoring its range to current consumer tastes. While the company continues to believe in Riesling, vice president of strategy, analytics, and insights Jen Bell notes that the group is also investing in Sauvignon Blanc—most recently with the launch of Liquid Light ($15 a 750-ml.). “It hits on the health and wellness trend with 105 calories per glass and less than one gram of sugar,” Bell says. Liquid Light reached 34,000 cases in its debut, according to Impact Databank.

Ste. Michelle also recently added Fruit & Flower Spritzers packaged in 250-ml. cans, retail priced at $11 a 2-pack, and its new Evenly label is targeting the health-conscious consumer with a line of four wines—Chardonnay, red blend, Papaya & Honeysuckle white, and Dragon Fruit & Orange Blossom rosé—that all have 100 calories or less, contain zero sugar, and are available in 750-ml. ($15) or 375-ml. ($8) bottlings.

Emerging players are also looking to make their mark on the Washington wine business. Among them is Aquilini Brands USA, the new wine group founded by the Vancouver, Canada-based Aquilini family, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks NHL team, among other interests.

Aquilini has just under 550 planted acres on Red Mountain in Eastern Washington and 104 planted acres in the Columbia Valley, as well as about 1,120 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, of which 460 are planted. The portfolio ranges from grocery-driven brands like Be Human, Dixie & Bass, and Chasing Rain in the $15-$25 tier to Cabernet Sauvignon and a red blend from the Red Mountain-based 10,000 Hours label, which sells at around $30. At the top of the pyramid is Aquilini Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, positioned at $110.

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