Thursday, May 21, 2009

Can Willamette Become the Next Napa?

Can Oregon’s Willamette Valley become the next Napa? Will the rolling hills and red soil be dotted with limousines and tour buses much like California’s famed wine region?

I made my second visit in a year to the Willamette in April and remain much taken by its simplicity and charm. I had the chance to talk to winemakers/owners in three different wineries.

Napa Valley has lost some of its charm because of tourism, many have argued. Indeed, during a 2006 summer visit to Napa, I was a surprised by the size of the tasting rooms, the number of tourists visiting.

The Willamette has big weekends similar to Napa around Memorial Day and the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. It certainly is more spread out than Napa and has a certain feel of agriculture and small business. The Valley features fabulous Pinot Noir, beautiful tasting rooms but in a 2008 summer visit and brief April visit I didn’t see near the crowds.

But do the wine people think further growth is a good or bad thing?

“If you’re trying to sell wine it’s a good thing,” said Craig Baker, who owns Ancient Cellars wine with brother Chris. “I think it will continue to grow. People have said the Willamette Valley is the next Napa-type thing. I guess we can always get too much of a good thing but now it’s more specific times.”

Baker just released a Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. He works for a large wine production facility but started his own label with brother Chris, who lives in Fishers, Indiana. Chris helps market the wine which is available in Indiana.
But not everyone is welcoming the tourist crunch.

“Fear,” is how Donna Morris and Bill Sweat, owners of Winderlea Winery in the Dundee Hills, answered in unison. “I think most people who are here are here for the love of the vineyards and the love of the grapes that these vineyards produce,” Morris said. “For a lot of the people it’s the attention to and the love of artisan winemaking. If you look around here everybody is making 1,000-5,000 cases. I think people are passionate about quality. It’s very hands on. It’s a very communal group of people and very collegial. People are willing to work with you but expect you to make a good product.”

Jesse Lange, general manager and winemaker for Lange Estate Vineyards, differs from both of the previous opinions. He just doesn’t think it’s going to happen. “I don’t know if those fears have any basis. Most of Oregon’s wineries are still very small productions. I think Kendall Jackson makes more wine that what we do as a state. Even our biggest wineries in Oregon are pretty small by California standards. We don’t make enough to ever be a drop in the bucket compared to our neighbors in California.”

Still, and particularly if you enjoy Pinot Noir, Oregon is a delightful place to visit. There is a less-rushed pace and I love that when you enter the tasting room it just might be the owner or winemaker pouring the wine.

I have more about Ancient Cellars and Winderlea in my blog (linked at above right) and reviews of wines I’m drinking each week.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, is a former newspaper editor and writer who considers himself a wine enthusiast.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wine Shops Reacting to Tough Economic Times

Tough economic times require creative thinking, flexibility, and a business person’s best instincts. That list probably gets longer for small, retail wine shops.

Finding a wine shop or two you’re comfortable with is one of the best steps to improving your wine knowledge and broadening your palate. The economic downturn is tough for small business. You need to get into your wine stores and support them. On the other hand, many of those stores are re-thinking their product strategy that plays right to your pocketbook.

Ashley Lockwood and husband Rob Ventura own two retail stores in Indianapolis. Ashley worked in wholesale and retail wine sales in Los Angeles and Chicago from 1998-2005. When she moved to Indianapolis in 2005, she opened her Broad Ripple store and recently added a second location in Carmel.

The tough times have been reflected in her customer’s buying habits.

“Many of our "wall wine" (over $15) regulars are now shopping mostly off the floor (under $15.) Our under $10 wines are flying off the shelves,” Lockwood said. “When we first opened, I had a couple of $6.99 wines that just didn't move because people thought they were too cheap. Now we can't keep our $6.99 wines in stock.”

I’ve heard the same themes from other retailers –wine shop owners and buyers are working harder to find wines you can’t buy in the grocery store, but at grocery store prices.

“I quadrupled the number of under $10 selections, and discontinued many of the $14.99 and even $13.99 wines,” Lockwood said. “We dedicated an entire corner of the store to $6.99 wines. I am buying larger quantities of wines in order to get the prices down. When we find great deals on closeout (from wholesalers), we buy everything they have.”

Just like any other business, the wine industry feels the pinch from winery, to wholesaler, to retail. Most wholesalers have product to move so smart retailers can get good buys to pass to their customers.

“Often (close-out lists) are wines I already know so I grab them,” Lockwood said. “Sometimes I am looking for a particular bargain (under $15 Pinot Noir or under $15 Chianti). If there is a wine that fits that profile, I will do some research on scores and reviews and then request a sample. For a lot of the smaller distributors, they approach us with specific wines they aren't moving and offer a deal. Many of the wines we have that are under $8 weren't originally that inexpensive.”

I have recently found some great under-$10 wines. I got this column idea in Ashley’s store during a recent visit. Husband Rob talked up an Italian Chardonnay. It was light and tasty. I bought a full case of a Spanish Monastrell. That grape (similar to Grenache or Syrah) will be new to most of you, but it illustrates why finding a retailer or knowledgeable wine person is so valuable. Both of these wines were $6.99. I have tasted a lot of $13-$17 wines not nearly as balanced and full-flavored as these two examples.

“Finding under $8 wine isn't hard,” Lockwood mused, “but finding under $8 wine I would take home and drink can be!"