On the joys and sorrows of rising cabernet sauvignon in Washington State

Booming cabernet sauvignon plantings in Washington State have made wine news this past week following a new report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This news makes me sad, though I probably shouldn’t be.

Washington can do superbly good things with cab sauv. Even if some efforts are built for earning high points from Wine Spectator rather than actual drinking enjoyment, Red Mountain and its neighboring AVAs in the state’s southeast can turn out beautifully dense, velvety, complex cabernets that make you want to pull out the good china for dinner. And cab sauv gives strength and seriousness to the red blends that are, across the board, what southeastern Washington does best.

Back In 2014, I wrote a piece for Palate Press inelegantly titled “When your iconic wine is everything: Washington’s diversity issue.” I had just returned to New Zealand from a fieldwork visit to my old home state, where I’d reveled in good bread, central heating, people who didn’t want me to taste multiple sauvignon blancs in a row, and plenty of really excellent wine. In that context, I’d been struck by the extent to which neither Washington State nor any of its subregions had One Big Wine that made up their public identity. New Zealand immediately conjures up Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Central Otago pinot noir, and Hawke’s Bay syrah. In the States, most readily nameable “regions,” whether states or American Viticultural Areas, have an equivalent: Napa cab, Oregon (Willamette Valley) pinot noir, Finger Lakes riesling, even Virginia cab franc and Missouri Norton. All grow other things, and in particular I’m sorry that Central Otago isn’t better known for its aromatic whites and that Marlborough isn’t in a position to develop its promising chardonnay and pinot noir. Nevertheless, the iconic wine is what consumers latch onto, what makes the region memorable and easy to understand, and what sells.

Washington doesn’t (yet) have an equivalent. (Red Mountain is known for cab sauv and Walla Walla for merlot, but only regionally as yet.) The state’s diversity doesn’t help it when a nervous New York City restaurant diner just wants to choose something familiar. Moreover, the best wines being produced in Washington are cab sauv, merlot, or blends driven by those grapes. If New York noshers are going to recognize not just Washington but Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Horse Heaven Hills, big reds will be the reason.

But the best wines don’t always make for the best drinking. Diversity makes for a joy-provoking field to explore if you’re willing to get to know them, and a welcome tasting experience if you’re out for the day. Washington winemakers – most of them running tiny businesses by California standards – to their credit, aren’t afraid to experiment in their still relatively young terrain and to find varieties outside the big 6 that are worth both their time and yours.

Not all of those experiments need to become traditions, and some no doubt deserve to be planted over with cab sauv. But some of those unusual wines are brilliant, from the totally unexpected and thoroughly delicious montepulciano I once tasted in the winemaker’s garage to the creamy semillons more often offered alongside those big reds – but, the numbers suggest, increasingly being edged out by cab sauv. These trends are signs of the state’s wine industry growing up. They’re also signs, perhaps, of losing something unique and beautiful the state losing a big part of what makes it unique, worthwhile, and beautiful to someone who isn’t nervously noshing in New York.

There’s much more to be said about the interactions of developing an icon style with winery size, consumer expectations for consistency, brand associations with wine labels or wine regions, climate change, fashion, distribution, and the development of new AVAs, among other things (some of which I say here). All topics that I hope the industry is discussing, and discussions that I hope to see taken up more publicly as well. For now, it seems that what I really want to say is: three cheers for odd-ball wines, in Washington and elsewhere.

Wine democracy, part II: Crowd-sourcing

If one way to make wine more democratic is to make wine writing more “accessible,” another is crowd-sourcing, asking “the consumer” what they want and finding ways to make it for them. Washington State’s Columbia Crest billed the “Crowdsourced Cabernet” it released in June of this year as “the first wine to be crowdsourced all the way from the vineyard to the bottle” via community input solicited online and, of course, filtered through one of their staff winemakers. I’ve yet to find one of the resulting 12,000 bottles in Edinburgh and can’t comment on the result, though there’s only so far you can go wrong with a $30 Horse Heaven Hills cabernet.

Taking crowdsourcing in a different direction, Brock University and Ontario Grape and Wine Research announced a new initiative this past summer to increase Ontario red wine sales by monitoring tannins to help winemakers produce the “rich and robust” reds that “the consumer” wants.

I have to put “the consumer” in quotes for the same reason that I, as a responsible scholar of science communication, have to put “the public” in quotes. In both cases, there’s no such thing. There are multiple publics, and multiple consumers, and anyone talking about them in singular form is either imagining a more specific group of people or being horribly vague.

That problem – the problem that “the public” consists of all manner of different people – is at the heart of the problem with crowd-sourcing. Crowd-sourcing calls on averages: the strategy takes a whole bunch of individual views and homogenizes them into a single outcome. Crowd-sourcing makes “the consumer” into a single group that votes to produce a single outcome that is then supposed to make most people happy enough most of the time. Crowd-sourcing imagines that the customer is always right, displaces passion, and erases diversity.

The customer is always right is wrong: That appears to be fairly common business knowledge, at least in the post-Jobsian era in which we’ve all been deeply saturated with i-products we never knew we wanted. Customers don’t always know what they want. For starters, their professional expertise doesn’t lie in arriving at new commercially viable solutions to daily problems. And customers certainly don’t know what manner of new and previously unimagined product they’ll buy when presented with the option to do so. Being asked a question about what you would like is different than being asked whether you do like something actually in a glass in front of you.

Passion is what makes wine: Passion is one of my least favorite words. It crops up on resumes in unlikely places, has been co-opted by business jargon in the service of banal and insulting sales pitches, and is pulled into service as a catch-all for people who haven’t thought deeply enough about what motivates them. Passion is also an enormous part of what makes wine, though I could just as easily call it pigheadedness. One person or a few people in collusion have an idea of something they’d really like to see happen because it would make them happy. They pursue it in the interest of making themselves happy and – lo and behold – other people are made happy by some of the same things, and that kind of satisfaction is contagious. Replace one person’s idiosyncratic passion-driven pipe dream with too much market research and a game of averages and you end up in a world of desk jobs. Most of us did not become interested in wine because we were looking for more desk jobs.

Diversity is a good thing: Consumers want “ripe, rich, rounded red wines?” I’m certain that some of them do. Heck, sometimes I enjoy the robustness of a big Horse Heaven Hills cabernet alongside the great diversity of other red wines I can find in eastern Washington. Crowd-sourcing as a fun marketing tool is one thing for an individual big-brand winery like Columbia Crest. It’s another thing to apply a general idea of what “the consumer” wants as a tool to guide the production of an entire region. Do we really want to encourage wine production to be less diverse, even if doing so increases sales? It’s an open question with many possible answers. But I’m skeptical that anyone, even the large producers making inoffensively homogeneous wine, wins by making wine more the same.

All of that said, I’m skeptical, but not worried. The best thing about the wine community isn’t that it’s democratic so much as that it’s a free state. Wine crowdsourcers can do their thing; plenty of more interesting wine will still be around for those of us who’d rather not follow the crowd.