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Posts Tagged ‘washington state’

Unlike in Europe, the tapestry of the American wine story is still mostly comprised of people who are the first or second generation of winemakers and vineyard owners. Getting into the winemaking business in this country is therefore more entrepreneurial and less about taking on the family business. The stories of these entrepreneurs are, to me, always inspiring since I will count myself amongst the countless that have ever had a fantasy of leaving my day job to toil amongst steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels. Yet, here we are while folks like Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley live out our day dreams.

I met Chad quite a few years back on one of his many trips to Minneapolis to market his wine and admittedly, with full editorial disclosure here, I’m a fan of what Dusted Valley does and their wine. The story of how Dusted Valley came into being though I think wonderfully exemplifies the modern American wine story. Take a few kids from the Midwest, give them a dream, and with the right tools and resources with perhaps a dash of luck, they’ll set out and get to work. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago on one of Chad’s latest trips to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Food and Wine Show as well as the accompanying Washington State Trade and Media tasting that I finally sat Chad down to tell me the story of Dusted Valley. Of course I recorded it, and while there was a little more background noise than I would have liked, I have posted the full interview as an episode of the Wine and Food Experience Podcast which I will of course, highly recommend you listening to at the bottom of the page.

Chad met the other founders of Dusted Valley in his second foray into college at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. This was after a few years spent wandering around the West Coast in a youthful narrative that probably embodied some combination of Kerouac’s On The Road with a touch of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test thrown in for good measure. But it was a time when California wine culture was taking a strong hold, and Washington and Oregon were on the upswing (Fun Fact: Dusted Valley became only the 52nd winery in WA in 2003). So while that culture may have honed his interest in pursuing a food science degree, the waitlist to get into UC Davis prompted Chad to look a little closer to home and he wound up at Stout. Whether wine was involved or not when Chad met his future wife, Janet, I didn’t ask but discussions about wine were certainly had as he got to know her and eventually her brother, Corey Braunel and Corey’s future wife. A wine business though wasn’t at the forefront of their minds since Midwestern values tend to focus more on what is practical first. So upon graduation, they all got respectable jobs and started to make lives for themselves. Yet the wine bug kept nipping at Chad. Coincidentally, Janet landed a job opportunity on the west coast and Chad was able to transfer out to the area in his pharmaceutical sales position.

Part of his week Chad would spend with his day job, and the rest he would spend touring around the burgeoning wine scene of eastern Washington learning all he could about the wine industry and the desire to start something sooner rather than later kept growing. Things moved fairly quickly after that through 2003 and 2004. The Braunels soon moved out to join the Johnsons and before they knew it they had a few tons of grapes and the help of a willing winemaker to show them the ropes. While Walla Walla, WA wasn’t necessarily chosen at random by Chad and crew, they were certainly fortunate to choose a place that had a fairly collaborative winemaking culture. Winemakers can be notorious for not sharing what they do behind closed doors. Even after the tutorials in winemaking though, they soon ran into the issue of how to sell the wine they’d made.

The pursuing years have been an education in how marketing and selling wine works. Simply by making good wine or even receiving accolades for it as Dusted Valley numerously has over the years does not guarantee that anyone will buy the wine. Chad and crew have been active students of the wine marketing world. Chad served a few years on the Washington State Wine Commission where he got to rub elbows with the likes of mega-wine producer Chateau Ste. Michelle and get further insight into how the wine world works. Additionally, they have struck up contracts with entities like Whole Foods for expansion opportunities of their Boomtown and Dusted Valley labels. Of course, they also spend a whole lot of time on the road getting their wine under the noses of whomever they can which has been made slightly easier these days now that their staff is expanding.

What I find most thoughtful about the how Dusted Valley approaches what they are doing is that they are constantly benchmarking themselves against wines that they themselves love whether it be Italian, French, or even other Washington wines and they’re willing to try something new. Then they’ll take something like a Rhone style Syrah heavy blend and fold it into what they’re doing.  So in addition to having enough talent to make and sell some tasty wine, they’re also demonstrating that they have good taste as well. That combination of having good taste and enough talent to produce something that can measure up to good taste is certainly an enviable combination worth watching develop over the years to come.

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Washington State Wine

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Chances are that if you’ve come across a wine from Washington State it was one that was owned by the Altria Group.  Their wine holdings include Chateau Ste Michelle, Snoqualmie, Erath, Hawk Crest, Fourteen Hands, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Seven Falls, O Wines, and Domaine Ste Michelle.  I say it’s statistically probable because they account for something like 80% of all wine exports out of Washington and that’s really a shame.  No, it’s not a shame because they produce poor quality wine.  In fact, they’re producing pretty good wines for each of their respective price points.  Even the fact that the Altria Group changed their name a few years ago from Phillip Morris Companies which leaves many that know that in a moral dilemma anytime they consider buying one of the wines isn’t the entire reason.  It’s a shame that the Washington wine you’ve probably had comes from the Altria group because there are so many other talented people growing grapes and making wine in that state that you really need to start drinking their stuff.

I’ve been going to a Washinton State trade and media tasting in Minneapolis off and on every March for the past 5 or so years and I think what is most remarkable about the event is that the wineries that show up are still wanting to prove that their wine is just as good as California or even Oregon which is now just starting to fade out of their brief shine in the international spotlight.  It’s a combination of optimistic enthusiasm and a serious chip on the shoulder; the plucky boxer that is hell bent on reaching the top and won’t stop to even acknowledge what they’ve accomplished so far.  Ironically, in my work with the Minnesota wine, I look to Washington to learn lessons about how to market and grow the industry.  To me, they’ve been nothing but a success story and are still climbing.

Sometimes it's ok to pick a wine based on its label.  Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

Sometimes it’s ok to pick a wine based on its label. Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

The winemaking culture in Washington borrows heavily from France; Bordeaux and Rhone in particular.  While you certainly see a number of single varietals, it seems everyone has a flagship blend of either the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvingon/Cabernet Franc or Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre variety.  Reds are certainly heavily favored, but their Chardonnays and Rieslings are certainly attractive options.  What is nice is that most of the wineries tend to shy away from the “Fruit Bomb” style that’s so popular with Robert Parker and California wines and instead opt for a touch of grace.  I believe we call that restraint.

Next time you’re out at the wine shop or a restaurant, do yourself a favor and search out a Washington wine and give it a try if you’re unfamiliar.  Walla Wall and Columbia Vallery are perhaps the two most established wine regions, but new ones are popping up regularly now.  However, it’s always difficult to find wine from these newer regions unless you drive the 4 hours + from Seattle to get to the regions themselves.  If you can manage it, try to avoid the Altria Group wines as well.  Again, not because they’re making bad wine, but to give the other winemakers a chance.  I’d say in most cases you’re not going to be disappointed and everyone wins if they start shipping more wine out of Washington.

Washington State AVA Map_Page_1

More maps and winery listings can be found here.

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