Northwest Wines Fill Niche International Sales Increase As Reputation For Quality Grows

When it comes to the international market, Northwest wines are just a drop in the bucket.

Still, Northwest wines are so admired in places like Singapore, Sweden and Britain, local vintners are pressed to produce more.

When Steve Burns, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, was promoting local wines at an exposition in Bordeaux this summer, his resources ran dry.

“I had orders from 25 countries that I couldn’t fill. People came up from Taiwan, Germany and South Africa,” he said. “We just didn’t have enough wine.”

In the past five years, Northwest wines have developed an international reputation for being consistently good. Fans come from as far away as Finland and the growing demand has hit home.

“We could ship more if we had more,” said Joe Algeo, sales manager for Spokane’s Arbor Crest Wine Cellars.

The winery sends 10 percent of its wines to about 20 countries, many in Asia, where the beverage is just becoming popular. “There’s a lot of growth potential in the area,” Algeo said.

Winemaker Tom Hedges of Hedges Cellars in Benton City found his international niche in Northern Europe. He entered the market by first shipping bulk northwest wines to Sweden in the late 1980s and eventually producing his own wines.

The bulk cabernet and merlots he first sent to Northern Europe were so popular, he couldn’t help but bring the business home. “The wine writers loved it,” he said. “We became a household wine in Sweden before we ever sold anything here.”

Hedges’ success story comes with award-winning wines. The vintner sells only 15 percent of his product outside of the U.S., but what he does export goes to Northern Europe.

“Europe has a consumption that’s 100 times higher than the Far East,” he said. “And the further north you go in Europe, the easier it is to sell wine.”

The big European buyers are countries like Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Great Britain.

World exports of Washington wine jumped 31.7 percent in 1997, making it a $6 million industry, according to the Pacific Northwest Wine Promotion Coalition. Sweden’s consumption of Washington wine increased 114 percent between 1996 and 1997. Wine purchases in the Netherlands jumped 607 percent from $27,000 in sales to $191,822. In the United Kingdom last year, more than $1.2 million worth of wine was sold.

“We’ve started drinking a lot more wine over the last five or six years,” said Susan Harris, a U.K. trade office director in London. “We’re always looking for small little boutique wineries we can impress our friends with.”

Washington and Oregon’s wines fit the bill.

“Northwest wineries are high quality,” Harris said. “I think their popularity will grow.”

Though American wines have found success in the international market, when it comes to traditional wine countries like France, Spain and Italy, sales are still slow. “We’re considered new world, part of California, Australia and New Zealand,” Burns said. “Some countries are more open to receiving new world wines, particularly those places without a native wine industry of their own or without a strong wine bias.”

Northwest wineries are careful to send only their best wines abroad to catch and keep an audience. “It tends to be the higher-end, more expensive wines that go,” said Algoe of Arbor Crest’s exports. “And overseas you kind of cut your own niche.”

Spokane-based Caterina Winery is just starting to dip into the international market. For the first time, it’s selling wine in British Columbia.

“It’s close. It’s an easier market for us to visit and become familiar with,” said Lyn Tangen, one of the owners. “We’re not planning to expand that much.”

Caterina’s efforts are typical of Washington wineries, Burns said. “I think they’re taking a long-term, slow business approach to exports,” he said. “For example, Caterina is in British Columbia next year and will proceed province by province, bringing only their best wines.”

This year’s bumper crop should help Northwest wineries meet the growing demand nationally and internationally. Though there still aren’t enough grapes to go around, this year’s harvest, which is nearly through, was especially bountiful, Burns said. “Everybody’s talking about it being a record.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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