Ξ May 10th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News |
The 3rd annual North American Wine Bloggers Conference is coming fast upon us. From June 25th to the 27th we will participate in a great community exercise in Walla Walla, Washington. Though the assembled bloggers give of their own divers and considerable talents, it is becoming increasingly evident that there is one substantial area of knowledge that is chronically under-represented: a working knowledge of viticulture and oenology. Now, while the rapid technological iterations of social media may be the most important topic bloggers hope to grasp, it is not enough. Indeed, social media is an empty form in search of meaningful content. Marketing is the current obsession, a force easily grasped by a 4 year-old demanding a toy gone viral. But, again, it is not enough. In this world of climate change, water scarcity, the decline of biodiversity, and the greening of our economy, it is more important than ever for bloggers to understand the basic science informing wine production.
So it is that I turn to geologist Dr. Kevin Pogue. I believe that his forthcoming presentation at the Conference to be of pivotal importance to our success at a durable understanding the Walla Walla region, and beyond.
Dr. Kevin R. Pogue is chair of the Department of Geology at Whitman College where he teaches classes on the geological history of the western United States, weather and climate, and terroir. Dr. Pogue has conducted research and led field trips in the Pacific Northwest for more than 25 years. His research interests have included the deposits of the Ice Age Missoula floods that form the basis for the soils of many of eastern Washington’s premier vineyards.
Recently, Dr. Pogue’s research has focused exclusively on terroir, concentrating on the relationship between topography and vineyard temperature variations and the influence of basalt, eastern Washington’s ubiquitous bedrock, on vineyard climate and soil chemistry. Dr. Pogue has presented papers at national and international terroir conferences and recently authored a field trip guide that describes the geological influences on the terroir of the Columbia Basin. He regularly contributes lectures on terroir to the Enology and Viticulture programs at Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College. Dr. Pogue has been a featured speaker at conferences of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and at “Taste Washington”, a celebration of Washington wines hosted by the Washington State Wine Commission. His essay on the relationship of the Missoula floods to Columbia Basin viticulture appears in the book “Washington: The State of Wine”. Dr. Pogue also provides vineyard site evaluations, terroir related web content, and promotional and educational materials through his company, Vinterra Consulting.
Admin Hello, Professor Pogue. Greetings from sunny California.
Kevin Pogue Hi. It’s good to meet you, kind of…
What’s the weather like up there? [May 5th]
KP We are having unusually cool weather. And I’m thinking that viticulturalists are starting to get a little worried about delays of bloom and things like that. It’s been cool and rainy, with snow in the mountains; it’s flirting with freezing down on the bottom of the Walla Walla Valley. It’s pretty strange weather we’re having.
What is the uppermost elevation for grape growing in Washington, by the way?
KP The limit of the viticultural area in the Walla Walla AVA is 2000 feet. But you could probably grow cool climate varieties above that, like Riesling or Gewurztraminer. I’m thinking that maybe you could grow up to 3000 feet, but most of the vineyards are in the 1000 to 1600 foot range in the valleys.
And this is true throughout Washington?
KP Some of the vineyards get a little bit lower than that, but that’s probably pretty much the case throughout Washington. Most vineyards lie between 700 and 1500 feet elevation. There are a couple that are 1600 to 1800 feet. I gave a talk to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers [WAWGG], there were about 350 people there, and I told them that they ought to be growing Riesling at 2500 feet if they wanted to grow Riesling like that of the Mosel. Now they are planting it down low where it gets really hot in the summer. Yeah, I think we could grow several varieties that would do really well up as high as 2000 to 3000 feet.
When you speak before associations like that of the Washington Wine Grape Growers, are they generally that well-attended? Are the winegrowers well organized in Washington?
KP They are. The Washington Wine Grape Growers is the largest conference of its type in the Northwest. The WAGG conference, they have it every year in February in the Tri-Cities. They have clinics and seminars, poster sessions, and then there’s a big industry presentation of all latest gadgets and machines, local suppliers attend. It’s the small scale regional version of the big Californian Unified Symposium. It is our little local version of that.
I was asked this year to give a talk about Riesling and Gewurztraminer terroirs in Washington. and there were about 350 people for the talk. That was a huge turnout.
All very serious winemakers and growers, I’m sure.
KP I’d say they were mostly viticultural people than winemakers.
I have a friend living in the Seattle area. She can’t purchase wine from a number of states, New Jersey being among them. What are some of the marketing obstacles Washington winemakers face when selling out of state?
KP Well, I think it has a lot to do just with recognition. When I travel to the East Coast and I go to, not the top flight places, but what many people would call a nice restaurant and look at the wine lists, there are European wines and the domestic stuff is from California. I think the typical East Coast wine consumer thinks that all good American wine comes from California. There is a lot of education that needs to be done. When they go to the grocery and liquor stores I think they are buying wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. They are selling really well because they are an amazing value, but I think that when you get to the upper tier wines, Napa has such amazing name recognition that it is a real uphill battle to fight that. It is always frustrating for me. And when I’m sitting in a bar at a nice restaurant looking at the wine list, I always take them to task. ‘Why don’t you have any good Pinots from Oregon? Or some good Syrahs and Cabs from Washington state?’ They ask, ‘Do they grow wine there?’
No! Really? That is astonishing to me. I rarely have a conversation with anyone, whether civilian or in the wine business, who are not cognizant of the Pacific Northwest as a quality region.
KP Well, you’re running in good circles. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where the University of Kentucky is…
It’s a dry state?
KP It’s not a dry. I mean, Lexington is a wet as it can be. They have warehouse-size stores in Lexington because many, many of the counties are dry. Everybody floods in. The places that are wet are soaking wet. So they have to supply all the all the outlying counties that are dry as well as their own county.
Anyway, there are Washington wines available in some of those bigger stores, and the people who work there are aware of the wines coming out of Washington, but the California stuff just dominates. And, of course, it’s production; there is a lot more production in California. But I think Washington needs to do even a better job than they are doing getting the word out. I think they need to go out and hold more tastings, more events, just get the word out and educate. Sommeliers know it, restauranteurs know it, but people aren’t going to buy them from the list unless they realize the quality of Walla Walla Syrahs. They need to learn how great the Syrahs, for example, can be. The average person knows that Napa makes great Cabernets, but the average person does not know Walla Walla makes great Syrah.
We have a similar problem here in California, in miniature. Other wine regions are ghettoized; Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino County, Sonoma to some degree. Napa dominates here as well. They’ve done an extraordinary job. The strange quality ranking goes on even here.
KP Sure. A lot of it is just time. Napa has been doing it for longer. They just have this history. Also it’s that a lot of our producers are small producers, they don’t have huge productions. And they are enough people out there who do realize there are fantastic wines here. My next door neighbor is a winemaker, he’s making great wine. I said something to him about needing a sign. He’s got a new tasting room. It’s in kind of an obscure place, I said he’d might want to put up a sign. He said, ‘Why do I need to do that? I sold out my entire production last year. And back then I didn’t have a tasting room.’ As long as they’re small producers, they are not trying to get on every wine list across the country. They are selling their stuff and are pretty happy.
Of course, you’ll be giving an important talk at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference.
KP Yes. After you sent the emails I went on the Conference site and saw that they had me giving a talk on the geology of the Walla Walla Valley. Just before you called I talked with someone from the Wine Alliance and told them I wanted to change the title to The Terroirs, plural, of the Walla Walla Valley because I want to get people to a breakfast talk after they have probably been up at night drinking! The geology of the Walla Walla Valley isn’t the most inspiring thing in the world to wine writers, but maybe terroirs would be.
About the fellow who was reluctant to hang the sign for his tasting room. That is in a way an entrée into the issue of social media that you’ll be hearing so much about at the Conference that you’re going to want to pull your hair out! Of course, social media is a large part of the Conference’s appeal. What percentage of Washington’s winegrowers, recognizing that many are small, could benefit from social media applications?
KP I think they would all benefit from it. There is no doubt about it at all. I read at least two wine blogs everyday, and sometimes three or four. I read Paul Gregutt’s everyday, I read Sean Sullivan’s everyday. I’ve been going back and reading yours, now that I know about it. I’ve been reading a bunch of your past blogs and enjoying them. They appeal to an academic like me. I teach a terroir class at Whitman. And I’ve pulled a lot of stuff out of the Wine Science text book, so I’ve been reading you interview with Ron Jackson. It’s fascinating. And I read Alice Feiring’s blog from time to time. I brought her to Whitman this year to give a couple of lectures. There was a really interesting reception to that! I read Randall Grahm’s stuff, when he writes it. I brought him here the year before to give some lectures.
Anyway, I think it’s great. I’m going to be doing a series of tours this summer, working with a local winery. I asked her how she was going to get the word out and she said she had an email list of of a gazillion people that she keeps updated on the goings on of the winery. All she has to do is punch a button and an announcement of the terroir tours will go out to all these people. That’s fantastic! Obviously, if you maintain a big email list of people that are interested in your winery and what’s going on with it, then you can just blanket them with new stuff, new releases, events. It’s a very powerful marketing tool. She seemed to have no doubt that if I agreed to do tours for them, in conjunction with some other events, that they’d sell out immediately. We’ll see.
People who drink wine tend to be more educated folks. And I find that whenever I do tours around the Valley (and I kind of wanted to do one for the Bloggers Conference, but it didn’t work out), that they are just packed. People love it. They want some sort of intellectual stimulation. Why is this vineyard different from that vineyard? What is the history of this area? What is the climate of this region? Why does it have that climate? Why are these rocks here? What’s the soil chemistry? How is it different from that sol chemistry? How might that be reflected in the wine? Why are people trellising their grapes like this in this vineyard and doing it differently in that vineyard? Etcetera, etcetera. People really thrive on that stuff. It’s been a lot of fun for me.
You know, it’s funny. I hear this time and time again. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought in the wine blogging community. One that insists on talking about only the taste descriptors, basic and straight forward, never straying too far from the marketing aspects of wine narrowly defined. The other approach (I’m squarely in this camp) recognizes that there is an enormous thirst for knowledge out there. Having worked in a winery for a number of years, I know that once folks are no longer afraid or intimidated from asking questions that they just go nuts with curiosity. Winegrowing is farming, after all. They want answers to basic questions about the agricultural world. People love that.
KP Yes, and they can’t get enough of it. I’ve done a couple of tours over in Europe. I led one big tour through the southern Rhone area, and I was astounded. I walked into Chapoutier’s tasting room in Hermitage and the whole floor was plexiglass. And underneath the plexiglass were labeled boxes containing rocks and soils from all the Chapoutier vineyards. So as you walked across the floor you could look down and see how the rocks and soils differed. And when you were tasting the wine, they would pour a vineyard designate Syrah from Hermitage, and if you wanted to know what how it was different they would point to someplace on the floor. ‘Go look at that.’ For each wine they would point to a different box.
There were geologic and soil maps all over the walls of the tasting rooms over there. The marketing organizations over there put out geologic cross sections and soil maps because people are really into it over there. They really market their terroir. And they have this philosophy that it is all about the site; and if you have a great site you then know the wine makes itself.
And the reason you want to buy a Walla Walla wine is because it comes from this fabulous site in Walla Walla, not because a superstar winemaker decided to settle here. It’s not about the personality of the winemaker. It is about the personality of the land.
End of Part 1