Dear Marketing Department: It's Willamette, Dammit!
- Mike Willison
The US has gone Sub-AVA crazy. We have long believed in the "specialness" of everything that we do (now more than ever), possibly motivated by over-protective parents trying to convince themselves that their progeny isn't a dud. We then believe that we are amazing and that-- despite the fact that we haven't learned to tie our own shoes by 10 years-old—we can do no wrong no matter what you say. If you don’t believe me, just ask Kanye West, he'll set you straight, because everything he does is the best, too. Shirley Bassey also sang, "Nobody Does it Like Me", but then a whole bunch of other people did it exactly like her including Valerie Harper on the Muppets. I actually like that version better. To be sure, nobody did it exactly like her, but c'mon. These days it’s pretty easy to put together a rag-tag bunch of homeless-looking bon vivants and assemble a pretty fair approximation of the Kings of Leon using ProTools, Antares Auto Tune, a Line-6 amp modeler, some clever airbrushing and 19th century beard management theories. A high school kid with a laptop can do this in a matter of minutes.
In the wine world, AVA identity and terroir have been largely eliminated by hoodwinkery, fancy machines, and winemaking auto-tune all at the hands of some high schooler with a laptop calling the shots from a Mallorcan beach whilst launching an IPO. Who cares if your wine comes from the tiniest corner of an AVA that no one has ever heard of when you use the exact same centrifuge and spinning cones on your wines as the guy making the wine with the dancing kookaburra on the label? Meaningful wines come from meaningful places and are made to respect that. In that sense, the place should eventually carry some cache and become, potentially, marketable if that is the desire.
Oregon is finding its way. We have a very small piece of the US wine market share at a thimbleful (less than 1%), although all indicators show growth. Pinot Noir is, no doubt, what is leading the charge here, although there are places in Oregon that can grow grapes with higher yields and fewer stress-related trips to their therapists at a much lower cost; and they do. Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Baco Noir, Gruner Veltliner and more are all being produced in Oregon, and these are varietals that are still struggling to gain a foothold here when autochthonously produced. Good luck getting everyone on board! In this vein, perhaps the best marketing strategy would be to consider Oregon the winemaking home of a "Pioneering Spirit". This is in line with the general M.O. of most Oregonians anyway (or transplants) and also includes the maverick nature of those rugged few that first planted Pinot here, against everyone's better judgment. Take that and run, marketers. You may have it.
Otherwise, we should just concentrate on making great Pinot Noir here in the Willamette Valley, reflective of place, and support our brothers and sisters in arms as best as we can, regardless of the foolish decisions they make, and hold hands with the ones that see the fight like we do.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
Marketing a wine region is tough business. There's all manner of back and forth regarding how to best go about this. For some, the best route seems to be yelling OREGON PINOT NOIR at whoever will listen. For others, the chosen route is to jump wildly ahead of the middle ground and onto the sub-AVA marketing train. Neither of these will market a successful wine region. Here's why:
"Oregon Pinot Noir" is vague. Although Pinot Noir is certainly grown in other places around Oregon, these other regions aren’t known for their Pinot Noir. Further, we’re doing them no favors by pigeonholing them into ONLY Pinot Noir, when they grow over 40 different varieties in Southern Oregon alone - Pinot Noir not even being the most notable. I've heard it argued that we're doing some sort of service to ALL the Oregon wine regions by marketing this way. (How magnanimous.) Let’s call a spade a spade: Oregon Pinot Noir means Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – at least for the time being. Let's leave it at that and let the rest of the state figure it out for themselves.
The opposite end of the spectrum, jumping right into sub-region marketing, is simply too much, too soon. If we’re struggling to make it known that we grow grapes in Oregon - to the extent that many still feel the need to lump the whole state together just to get the word out - then attempting to market "Eola-Amity Hills" is, at least at this point, just silly. Not only does it confuse people who don't live or work in the Willamette Valley, the idea that this mini-marketing will impact sales or visitors nationally is way ahead of its time.
Take California. (Yes, comparisons to California are growing tired, but there's a reason we make them, so bear with me.) California's major regions are well-established, at least as far as American wine regions are concerned. Whatever your personal opinions are of these regions, they're doing something right, and it would be worth our time to pay attention. For example, the Napa Valley is arguably the most famous American wine region, pulling the most visitors and commanding the highest prices on a relatively easy to grow grape. People visit ‘Napa’, not ‘Calistoga’ (a sub-region of the Napa Valley), and they know which airport to fly into and which direction to head for all of that famous Cabernet.
Marketing the Willamette Valley specifically as the home of award-winning Pinot Noir would give visitors a destination. It would make Willamette Valley-designated Pinot Noir worth more, the way that Cabernet grown within the confines of the Napa Valley can command ridiculously high prices just based upon geographical designation. This type of marketing creates familiarity. And familiarity sells wine.