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The Epicenter of Wine?
By Robert Whitley
Jul 31, 2018
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I must confess, I turn a blind eye to most wine-related press releases unless they contain news of a sale or a death. There are exceptions, such as the dispatch this week from Washington State Wine, a trade organization that represents most if not all of the wineries in Washington.

The pitch was the launch of an advertising campaign, scheduled to run through October, that positions Washington as “the New Epicenter of Wine.” They even have a logo that makes that bold claim.

Forgive me, but my eyes rolled on that one. Set aside for a moment the historic wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Rioja and a slew of others I could name. I’m not even sure Washington can stake a plausible claim to being the epicenter of American wine.

Don’t get me wrong. Washington wines are solid, even brilliant at times. So are the wines of New York’s Finger Lakes, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Virginia’s rapidly growing wine community near Charlottesville. There are other contenders, too. Quality is rising in virtually every wine region across the nation.

Washington’s ambition is laudable. But its claim to be the “New Epicenter” is silly.

For better or worse, the old epicenter of American wine, California, will likely maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future. California’s historic position as the true epicenter of American wine is based on four pillars.

The first is E&J Gallo, the wine company founded by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, E&J Gallo made California wine ubiquitous across the United States. No one knows for sure how big Gallo is today, but we’re pretty sure one of its brands, Barefoot Cellars, sells more than 10 million cases a year. It is frequently described as the largest wine brand in America. Last I heard, E&J Gallo won’t be closing up shop anytime soon.

The second pillar is the legacy of the late Robert Mondavi, who founded his namesake winery in the Napa Valley in the 1960s. Mondavi traveled the globe relentlessly promoting the Mondavi brand until the Mondavi name was literally on the tip of everyone’s tongue. No wine region has ever had a more charismatic or uniting spokesman than Robert Mondavi.

His success at burning the Mondavi name into the consciousness of America also lifted the fortunes of California wine in general and the Napa Valley in particular.

Third, there was the infamous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when a handful of carefully selected Napa Valley wines confounded a panel of French wine experts and thrashed a number of prominent French wines in a blind tasting that resonated around the world. The unexpected triumph gave California wine, and in particular Napa Valley wine, the sort of snob appeal money alone can’t buy.

And finally, there is the last pillar: geography. Washington’s two major wine districts, the Columbia Valley and the Yakima Valley, are far from Seattle, Washington’s largest city and its only major transportation hub. The same is true of most other important American wine districts, the exception being California.

The proximity of San Francisco to the Napa Valley and the diverse American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Sonoma County; San Jose to the rolling vineyards of the Santa Cruz Mountains; and Los Angeles to the vineyards of Santa Barbara County, ensures a steady flow of wine tourism that no other major winegrowing region in America can match.

I don’t mean to rain on Washington’s parade. Its ambition is admirable. Its willingness to spend a significant amount of money on a promotion to support its wine industry is a model for the rest of the country. Its quest for quality is second to none. Its wines truly are delicious. And the Washington wine industry is young and modern.

But when Steve Warner, president of Washington State Wine, says “we look forward to telling our stories to prove to consumers and trade alike that Washington State is the New Epicenter of Wine,” I say it’s time for a reality check.