“The message to the American audience should be very simple,” says Veronica Wells, whose father works as a winemaker in Spěvák, in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic. Her company Wills International imports and distributes its wines in the United States
One only needs to look at side Impact to understand the truth in this statement. The phrase “I don’t drink any merlot” is as simple as it gets, and has had an immediate and profound effect on grape sales for years.
For many new or emerging world wine regions, a brief message often comes to distinctly diverse wines to claim their claim.
Malbec became the standard grape for Argentine winemakers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while the fruit-oriented New Zealand expression of Sauvignon Blanc is seen as friendlier and more affordable than Sancerre. For some consumers, “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” has almost become a genre in its own right.
But what about places where the hallmark of winemaking is more variety than varietal? Many countries or regions can produce exceptional wines. However, if it is not synonymous with a single grape, it can be a longer path to international prestige than nearby places with a strong affinity for diverse wines.
Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Washington State are examples of places where winemakers and distributors are seeking to increase visibility without signature grapes to promote. As they each explore different avenues, there is consensus among the major players that this vision is important.
“If you want to be a world-class wine region, you better go out and play on the world stage,” says Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington State Wine Commission.
Mexican fine wine, modern Mediterranean
The Mexican winemaking region, especially the largest wine producing region, Baja California, is not lacking in options.
“You have over 100 different grapes, plus sparkling, red, white, pink and even a little dessert wine,” says Sandra Fernandez, winemaker and wine manager at Hotels Xcaret Resorts in Playa del Carmen. So, in short, I would say, it’s ‘Variety.
Mexico has the oldest winemaking tradition in the Western Hemisphere. However, even it produces wine that escapes some consumers, even within its borders. It has paled a lot in comparison to the popularity and size of agave-based spirits.
“I think if Mexico had rooted itself in a single grape many years ago, as other New World regions have done, that would have helped define the country for new wine consumers,” Fernandez says. In the absence of a distinct grape, she says, comparisons between the climate of Mexico and that of the Mediterranean can be effective.
Reza Zaidi, managing partner at Back Alley Imports, says Mexican wine can be expensive due to a lack of government support. He also says its hot climate and relatively low rainfall can be a challenge.
His solution, and one that Fernandez also uses, is to harmonize his wines with fine Mexican food.
“The good news is that Mexican cuisine is finally getting the recognition it has long deserved,” he says. “So in every major metropolitan area, there are five, 10, 20 super quality Mexican restaurants, and that’s kind of where we really started.”
Czech wine has a Renaissance
“We have a lot of conversations with the Czech Embassy regarding what they want to be known for,” says Amanda Wilson of Ahtel Wines, a New Hampshire-based importer. “They didn’t really have the grape variety that wasn’t already eaten. There are a lot of dry Riesling in the area, but do Moselle and Alsace compete?”
Wells says storytelling is important. “The hardest part is, how do we get people to try it?” She added distribution to the Boston-based import process to create a better narrative about Czech wine and put it in the hands of the right retailers and restaurants.
Wells believes that wines speak for themselves in quality and variety, but “how do we put it in people’s mouths?”
In conversations that Wills and Wilson had with the Czech Embassy, which invests in its own wine industry as a representation of the country, representatives spoke about the idea of a Czech wine renaissance.
“I hate to say ‘I grew up,’ because the history of winemaking there goes back centuries,” Wilson says. “So we’re really talking about Czech winemaking as having a renaissance. Historically people understand that communism happened. There was a period of time when they were off the grid. So, when you put it in that context, they had wine culture, communism happened and now they have this revival again.
“It’s great, because they have such a long history that they can count as a sales contributor, and that also explains why you’ve never heard of them.”
Washington State on Flexibility and Changing Consumer Values
Washington State produces the second largest amount of wine in the United States after California, but it lags in consumer consciousness than its neighbour, Oregon, where the Willamette Valley is famous for its pinot noir.
“We’re always kind of on top and quality and quality, and we have wines for anyone, any price point, any occasion, and it’s going to be overpriced at whatever price you pay,” Stone says. He admits that it can be useful to consumers, while “Pinot Noir” is only three syllables.
Stone says Washington State continues to stand out as a region. While it was beginning to lean toward Cabernet Sauvignon, declaring it as the signature variety wine would limit the state’s potential, given its ability to grow in just about anything.
“We’re still a pretty young area,” he says, “and you can’t force it into it.” “You have to wait and see which identity emerges. We don’t know yet what our best grapes are.”
Juan Muñoz Oca, master winemaker at the largest winery in Washington, St. Michelle Wayne Estates, says Washington’s core message may be increasingly relevant to consumers, one that avoids the need for premium grapes.
“We are in a place where we can lead the pack when it comes to climate resilience,” he says. “It’s a story where you can jump between varieties and styles of wine. I think Washington will be one of the most influential wine regions in the world during our lifetimes.”
Stone is keen to bring Washington wines to a wider audience.
“The world is getting more and more diverse, and we have to find ways to attract new and young consumers,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but it’s definitely one that we’re constantly trying to solve.”