Thoughts and Comparisons Between California and Washington

Good post here including some of the grape growing statistics pertaining to California and Washington.  I will weigh in on some of the data.

Total tonnage in 2012:

  • California: 4,014,000
  • Washington: 188,000

Price per ton:

  • California: $769
  • Washington: $1,040

This statistic makes a lot of sense.  While California holds the lead in terms of notoriety of its high-end wines such as Napa Cabernet, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, most of the wine (and money!) coming in to the California wine industry is from low-end “jug wine.”

And, as younger folks make their way into drinking and enjoying wine, I fear that maybe they do not fully understand what is “jug wine.”  It is not the $8.99 bottle that you drank in college before you had a full-time job.  We’re talking about wine that costs as low as a couple dollars per gallon.  You see it in 5-liter bladder bags, and 3L glass bottles that look like something from Sicily in the 1800’s.

So far, Washington grape growers have not entered into this business segment in full force.  I don’t fully know why, but I can attempt to predict the future.  There will always be a place for jug wine, but the ratio of jug wine to table wine that Americans drink will also change, and probably in the direction of more table wine.  Therefore, Washington growers should stay away from this category because it accounts for less gross income and the market is more saturated with the wine from California.

As you see, the average price in Washington is higher, and that is attributable to having no sea of jug wine to pull down the average price from the higher-end grapes that are grown.

One other stat jumped out at me:

Total tonnage in 2012:

  • Napa: 181,183
  • Sonoma/Marin: 266,101
  • Washington: 188,000

Riesling tonnage:

  • Napa: 447
  • Sonoma/Marin: 354
  • Washington: 36,700

The abundance of Riesling in Washington is attributable to the California-minded folks that originally planted grapes in Washington to make wine.  They looked at a map, noticed the difference in latitude, and concluded that since Riesling grows better in the more northern parts of California and Europe, that Riesling would similarly grow better in Washington.

They were correct only about half way.  It is true that the average temperature in Washington is somewhat lower, which is good for Riesling.  However, what they did not take into account is that the extreme difference in latitude also means that the lengths of the days are longer in the summer (think Alaska and its extremes).  So, although the highs are not as high, the vines get a few extra hours of sun in the summer that California vines don’t get.

Therefore, red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and  Syrah thrive in Washington.  Riesling does well too, but, from a business perspective, those three red varietals bring in a lot more cash per bottle.  Chateau Ste. Michelle has made quite a business on selling Rieslings at many price points.  I don’t have the propriety information to know whether its Rieslings are being sourced from places that could grow red grapes better.  In any case, the growers of Washington should forage ahead in the pursuit of planting more red grapes because making good red wines is surely the way to have the rest of the world stop and take notice.   The increased profits would then follow.

(This posting is not to be construed as legal advice.  If any of the information in this posting relates to legal issues that you are facing, you should contact an attorney.)

© All rights reserved Kevin Guidry 2013.

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