Sunday, August 22, 2010

An Open Letter of Thanks to Robert Parker, Jr. and the Wine Spectator

Thank you for believing all that propaganda from the Washington Wine Commission and determining that great wine cannot be made in the Yakima Valley. I owe the success of Bonair Winery to you.

Why? You ask. Well, I didn't become a 'rock star' winemaker and the winery didn't gain a cult following so we didn't price ourselves out of the market. Our customers are wine drinkers, not wine snobs. They are Boeing employees - including some senior vice presidents - but all wine drinkers, not wine collectors. They are the working class people of Puget Sound who know what they like and don't have to chase some impossible-to-get overpriced jam-juice in a bottle. They don't need an expert to tell them what to drink. Thank you also to our loyal customers in Puget Sound who come back year after year to buy cases - not collector bottles.

When we planned our winery back in the early '80s, we did not plan on becoming rock stars or getting rich. I was a school administrator and tired of the rat race. I wanted to raise the kids in the country. I loved wine and making wine. No one was getting rich in the business back then. (Sebastiani and Almaden, are faint memories) We just wanted to make a simple living with a simple life-style. I only applied for jobs as an elementary school principal where I could grow wine grapes. I applied in Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills, Sonoma County, Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon, and the Yakima Valley. I was lucky to land in the Yakima Valley and especially the Rattlesnake Hills. When we started, we self-distributed Riesling in Seattle for $3 per bottle, which Pike and Western sold for $4. Leonetti cab at the time went for $12. Imagine, a bottle of Leonetti Cab for only 3X Riesling price (and I'm not talking Dr. Loosen!) Wine was much more affordable back then - before the investment bankers, Parker, Wine Spectator et. al. got involved. The only wine writer of significance was Jerry Mead - Mead on Wine.

I got a call from my friend Harry Alhadeff, founder of many Washington brands like Apex, the other day and we discussed the future of the Washington wine industry. Harry is a firm believer that the good times will again return and it is important to cut production and hold on to price point. I, on the other hand, believe the wine business in entering a new (old) reality. Winemakers will no longer be rock stars. Wineries will not have waiting lists to get on the waiting list to buy wine. And because of worldwide competition, wine prices will remain low.

I saw this ad on the web and it started me thinking. $20 to $50 bottles of wine and a $3 million dollar inventory. At $20 per bottle that is a 12,500 case inventory in a 3000-4000 case production winery. That looks like a four-year back up to me. There is no equipment or real estate listed. I'm sure no reasonable offer over the $3 million for the inventory will be refused. Reason Selling: Other interests. It seems to be easy to lose interest in owning a winery these days.

I think my neighbor up the road has lost interest in playing winery and rumor has it his winery is for sale for $1.1 million.

Remember the new economy, where you didn't have to make money, you just needed investors with lots of money? Sorry, the new economy went south and probably took a lot of overpriced wines with it. It, like overpriced wine, is not coming back.

You heard it here, folks, the new paradigm is here and it's the old paradigm. If you don't have a viable tasting room (and ones in Walla Walla and Woodinville are looking dicier each day) and you can't compete at the under $15 (preferably under $12) price point, you better not be in the business. A few cult wineries will remain, but if you aren't one already, you ain't gonna be one.

But, if you love hard work and the smell of the cellars, you can still make a decent living as a winery owner. I do.


  1. Interesting stat, Gail, comparing the price of Leo to a riesling. It seems to suggest that cabs and reds have risen in price much more dramatically than white wines (or is it just rieslings?) even tho' there are more red grapes planted than ever before. Are consumers just drinking more red, less white? Or do the critics only give big scores to red wines? Or is some other factor at work?

  2. Good questions as usual Paul. I would hedge and say it is a combination. Consumers are drinking more reds, but 'collectors' only buy reds, so trophy wines have to play a big role.

    I am optimistic that the old days will return and sense will return to pricing. That may not be good for wine writers.