Positioning the Pacific Northwest in the UK

The US states of Oregon and Washington want to establish a category in the UK wine market. Gary Werner investigates the state of their efforts

Nobody gives a toss," says independent wine merchant Noel Young. "I mean, there isn't any interest. They're not on the radar screen."

Young is referring to the wines of ­Washington state, including a handful of brands that he added to his list last year. "But I don't want to sound all doom and gloom," he says. "There are very good wines produced in the Pacific Northwest. They're just held back by two problems: we don't have the bottom stuff and we don't have the top stuff."

When Young says the " bottom stuff", he means "introductory wines that overdeliver at £6.99-£7.99 and convince people to trade up to the rest of the range. It's really the same story for any region that wants to build a category and gain market share in the UK."

Al Portney knows the importance of such an entry-level offer, and he is working to create one for the Pacific Northwest at major UK multiples such as Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Majestic. Portney is vice president of international sales for Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the largest producer in both Washington and the Pacific Northwest region as a whole. He says the company's Columbia Crest brand wines can now overdeliver to the UK market at £6.99 to £9.99 - which encompass the very price points Young highlight s as crucial.

Even so, a multiple listing has proven elusive. "The UK remains a big challenge," says Portney. "I sell wine in 56 countries, and over the past four years we've been averaging export growth close to 30 per cent. So what are the Danes and the Japanese and others seeing that the British are not? We already enjoy success in the UK restaurant trade through Berkmann Wine Cellars, so how come we can't translate that into greater retail distribution?"

Part of the reason may be the region's legacy of failed attempts to break into the UK market. "A lot of producers have come to Britain over the years and never found a place for their wines," says Portney. "But much of that was their own fault. If they didn't get immediate nibbles on the hook, they thought it wasn't working and they went away for a couple of years before trying again. They lacked a global mindset and the necessary commitment."

"Thankfully," he continues, "this situation has changed and we're demonstrating real commitment and also seeking real commitment. That's why we are hosting an invitation-only trade tasting in London during late January, and that's why we're taking a fairly large position - with 25 or 30 producers from both Washington and Oregon - at the London wine trade fair in May."

The collaborative aspect of this newfound commitment seems a recent phenomenon. A year ago, the two states had separate marketing or PR representation in the UK; and while Oregon had a stand at the 2006 London wine trade fair, Washington did not participate.

"Actually, we have worked together in the past," says Howard Rossbach, president of leading Oregon producer Firesteed. "But then we moved apart, and that was probably due to internal politics. Today, we have the maturity and confidence - individually as companies and collectively as industries - to work together whenever we can in order to achieve more than would be possible separately."

Evidence of that collective approach came in October when the generic Washington Wine Commission assigned its UK representation to Hilltop Wines, the Surrey-based export marketing consultancy that had been appointed to represent the generic Oregon Wine Board the previous spring. But this joint account also raises questions about positioning. Will Pinot Noir-led Oregon and Cab/Merlot/Syrah-led Washington be promoted under a single banner in the UK?

Mike Coveney, of Hilltop, says no. "Anecdotal references to the Pacific Northwest are probably fine. The two do sit side by side geographically, and they are sharing resources for tastings and other efforts of mutual benefit. But we really want to be talking about the distinct identities of Washington and Oregon. Each has its own story and its own wine styles, and those will dictate the pace and direction of their development."

Speaking of that development, what about the other problem highlighted by Noel Young: the lack of "top stuff"?

"The majority of the world's top wines are represented here in the UK," says Young. "So the Pacific Northwest needs to send A-list material - for example, the likes of Leonetti and Quilceda Creek - to show the trade and the journos what is possible from the region."

Coveney agrees the strength of the Pacific Northwest is firmly rooted at the premium end of the spectrum. "Generally, across both states, we are talking about small wineries that produce small amounts of wine in an artisan manner. These are premium-quality products - and, yes, that means prices are at the premium end; I say that because pricing has been raised as a criticism in the past. But premium prices are not unique to these two states. I was watching the Oz and James wine TV programme, and they were in France tasting something that sells for around £20. So every region has wines at these price points, and plenty of people are buying at this level, too."

"Our challenge," he says, "is to target the right channels to reach the right customers with these wines. The January tasting is one step in that direction. At this point, we just want to establish distribution for more brands so more journalists can start to write about the wines and get these relatively undiscovered regions on the radar screen. At that point, we can support the trade in really growing a category for this corner of America."

Trade and Press Tasting

When: January 22 from 10.30am to 4.30pm

Where: The Tavern Room at The Royal Society of Arts, London WC2N

Contact: Kate Sweet at Hilltop Wines - kate@hilltopwines.co.uk

A range of 18 Oregon and Washington wine brands will be presented to interested press and potential distributors. Further information about the wine industries of each state will be available during the event from Howard Rossbach of Firesteed, who is representing Oregon, and Al Portney of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, who is representing Washington. This tasting is self-pour and by invitation only.