SUNNYSIDE, Wash. Hugh and Kathy Shiels wanted to stand out when they started Cote Bonneville winery in 2001, and at $100 a bottle for their initial vintage, they certainly did.
Some criticized the Eastern Washington winery for charging so much for unproven wines, but Cote Bonneville has received high scores from wine critics and found markets in Florida, New York, Chicago and, just last week, Denmark.
“We had pretty lofty goals for a small winery, and we’re still maintaining those goals,” said Kathy Shiels. “We had a particular piece of property that we believed was of the caliber to show itself on a world stage. That’s not why a lot of people start making wine.”
Back then, Washington’s wine industry was an industry darling, with fewer than 200 wineries. Setting yourself apart wasn’t overly difficult, whether you charged $100 a bottle or not.
Now at more than 650 wineries in Washington, with a new license bonded every 10 days, it’s getting harder to get noticed in a state still known more for its Red Delicious apples than its Riesling.
“I wouldn’t want to start up now unless I had really, really deep pockets,” said Rick Small, who in 1976 founded Woodward Canyon Winery near Walla Walla. “It’s a lot harder than I think people realize it is, and there’s a lot of competition, and I’m just talking in Washington.”
Valued at about $3 billion annually, Washington’s wine industry still ranks second behind California, which has more than 10 times the acreage and four times the number of wineries. Few Washington wineries are widely recognized by average consumers outside the region, and most are known for producing wines priced in the $40-range and lower, though a number of wines top $100 a bottle now.
The competition has made it harder for winery owners in the state, said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission.
“It’s definitely a buyer’s market,” she said. “Wine consumers are becoming much more educated and savvy and knowledgeable.”
Greg Harrington, founder and winemaker at Gramercy Cellars, came to Walla Walla after overseeing wine and alcohol programs for 15 restaurants and hotels in New York. He previously worked with famed chef Wolfgang Puck and is a master sommelier.
Price defines perception, Harrington said.
“Why is a Gucci black T-shirt $850 and I can get the same thing from J-Crew for $20?” he asked. “It’s all about what you like.”
Gramercy Cellars wines range in price from $40 to $65.
Iconic wines and iconic wineries aren’t necessarily the same thing either, he said.
“For me, I would rather have five really good wines than four good ones and two that are outstanding,” Harrington said. “If you can get $120 a bottle, that’s great. It’s a worse sin to sell your wines for too little than too much.”
At any price point, it’s going to be difficult for wineries to continue to set themselves apart, said Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.
“I personally would like to see more people pursue a $15 iconic wine,” he said. “It would be so much better for Washington to have that approach, to reach more people.”