“The message for the American public should be very simple,” says Veronika Wills, whose father is a winemaker in Spěvák, in the Moravia region of the Czech Republic. His company, Wills International, imports and distributes his wines in the United States
Just consider the Next to effect of understanding the truth in this statement. “I don’t fucking drink Merlot” is as simple as it gets, and it had an instant and profound impact on grape sales for years.
For many New World or emerging wine regions, a succinct message often boils down to a signature varietal wine to lay claim to.
Malbec became the unifying grape variety for Argentine winemakers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while the fruity New Zealand expression of Sauvignon Blanc is seen as more accessible and affordable than Sancerre. For some consumers, “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” has almost become a variety in its own right.
But what about places where the hallmark of wine is variety rather than varietal? Many countries or regions can produce exceptional wines. Yet, if they are not synonymous with a single varietal, it may be a longer road to international prestige than neighboring places with strong ties to one varietal wine.
Mexico, the Czech Republic and Washington State are examples of places where winemakers and distributors are looking to increase their visibility without a signature varietal to promote. Although each is exploring different approaches, there is consensus among key players on the importance of such visibility.
“If you want to be a world-class wine region, you better get out there and play on the world stage,” says Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington State Wine Commission.
Premium Mexican Wine, New Mediterranean
Mexico’s wine landscape, and specifically its largest wine region, Baja California, has no shortage of options.
“You have over 100 different varietals, plus sparkling, red, white, rosé, and even a bit of dessert wine,” says Sandra Fernández, winemaker and director of wine at Hoteles Xcaret resorts in Playa del Carmen. “So in a nutshell, I’d say it’s ‘diverse’.”
Mexico has the oldest winemaking tradition in the Western Hemisphere. However, that it even produces wine eludes some consumers, even within its borders. It is far eclipsed, especially when compared to the popularity and volume of agave-based spirits.
“I think if Mexico had anchored itself to a grape variety many years ago, as other parts of the New World did, it would have helped identify the country to new wine consumers,” says Fernandez. In the absence of a characteristic grape variety, comparisons between the Mexican climate and that of the Mediterranean could be effective, she says.
Raza Zaidi, managing partner at Back Alley Imports, says Mexican wine can be expensive due to a lack of government subsidies. Plus, its hot climate and relatively low rainfall can prove challenging, he says.
His solution, one that Fernández also employs, is to align his wines with high-end Mexican cuisine.
“The good news is that Mexican food is finally getting the recognition it’s long deserved,” he says. “So in every major metropolitan area there are five, 10, 20 super high-end Mexican restaurants, and that’s kind of really where we started.”
Czech wine is experiencing a renaissance
“We have many conversations with the Czech Embassy about why they want to be known,” says Amanda Wilson of Ahtel Wines, a New Hampshire-based importer. “They really didn’t have that identifying grape that hadn’t already been taken. There is a lot of dry Riesling in the region, but are you in competition with Moselle and Alsace?
Storytelling is important, Wills says. “The hardest part is how do you get people to try it?” It added distribution to its Boston-based import operation to better create a narrative around Czech wines and get them into the hands of the right retailers and restaurants.
Wills thinks the wines speak for themselves in terms of quality and diversity, but “how do we put them in people’s mouths?”
In conversations Wills and Wilson had with the Czech Embassy, which invests in its wine industry as a representation of the country, the representatives raised the idea of a Czech wine renaissance.
“I hate to say ’emerging’ because the history of winemaking there goes back centuries,” says Wilson. “So we really talk about the Czech wine industry as a renaissance. People understand historically that communism took place. That there was a period of time that they were off the grid. So when you put it in that context, they had a wine culture, communism came along and now they’re having that renaissance again.
“It’s great because they have this long history to build on as a sales pitch, and it also explains why you’ve never heard of them.”
Washington State on Resilience and Changing Consumer Values
Washington state produces the second highest volume of wine in the United States behind California, but it lags behind in consumer awareness compared to neighboring Oregon, where the Willamette Valley is famous for its pinot noir.
“We always sort of lead with quality, quality, quality,” Stone says, “and we have a wine for everyone, at any price, for any occasion, and it will be over-delivered at any price you pay.” He admits it can be an ear for consumers, when “Pinot Noir” is only three syllables.
Stone says Washington state is still emerging as a region. As it begins to lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon, declaring it a signature varietal wine would limit the state’s potential, given its ability to grow just about anything.
“We’re still a fairly young region, and you can’t force it,” he says. “You have to wait and see the identity that emerges. And we don’t know yet which will be our best grapes.
Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker at Washington’s largest winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates says Washington’s primary message may be increasingly relevant to consumers, one that circumvents the need for a signature grape.
“We are in a situation where we could be leading the pack in climate resilience,” he says. “And it’s a story in which you can go from one grape variety to another and from one style of wine to another. I believe Washington will be one of the most influential wine regions in the world in our lifetime.
Stone is eager to bring Washington wines to a wider audience.
“The world is becoming more diverse and we need to find ways to attract new, younger consumers,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but it’s certainly a challenge that we are constantly trying to solve.”