- Written by Rand Sealey
Just over five years ago, on July 1, 2012, the sale of spirits and other alcoholic beverages in Washington State was privatized, ending 79 years of state control through state liquor stores, This came about as a result of the approval of Initiative 1183 by a margin of 60 to 40 percent by voters in the November 2011 election. It was the biggest change in the way alcoholic beverages were sold in the state since the passage of the Steele Act in 1933, after the repeal of Prohibition, which set up the state liquor store system.
The passage of Initiative 1183 was all about getting the state out of the liquor business. After nearly 79 years of state control, voters were tired of the existing system. The Washington State Liquor Control Board had become a fossilized hidebound bureaucracy, beholden only to itself. Over the years, the State Legislature abdicated its responsibility for modernizing the liquor system. The only major change in the way alcoholic beverages were sold was in 1969 when the sale of wines besides Washington produced ones were allowed to be sold in grocery stores and other retailers. All other changes have been incremental.
Initiative 1183 was called the "Costco Initiative" for good reason. The main beneficiaries were the big retail outlets, including Total Wine and More, Safeway, and BevMo as well as Costco. The initiative had arcane layers of fees (on wholesalers and retailers) and taxes which added up to higher spirits prices relative to other states. But the initiative also permitted volume discounts from the wholesaler to retailer which has mitigated the effects of the higher taxes. It is the big guys who benefit the most from the discounts with their purchasing power for their chain operations. Central warehousing also added to the benefits.
So what does privatization look like now, five years later? The biggest change has been a far wider selection of products in the market, not only for spirits, but for wine and beer as well. I was at the Total Wine and More store in Spokane Valley last Friday, and saw a huge selection of everything - vodka, Tequila, Scotch, Washington, California and imported wines, beers and more. I was in Esquin Wine & Spirits (of which I was the founder in 1969) a couple of weeks ago and saw an array pf whiskies, Italian Amaros, Cognacs, brandies, and so forth. One of the reasons why initiative efforts to get the State out of the liquor business failed until 2011 was that the big distilling companies liked the old system because it reduced competition by limiting sales to smaller state run stores.
What about spirits prices? There is no doubt that prices are higher with privatization, but convenience (with more stores and more hours) and selection are greater. Volume discounts and competition has pushed prices downward since 2012. Spirits sales in Washington is being subsidized to some degree by profits from sales in other states.
Today's privatized liquor sales system could be better. Craft spirits distillers could use some help in tax breaks to enable them to be more competitive. And a reduction of the spirits sales tax from 20.5% to the state and local general sales tax would make things more equitable for consumers. But privatization is here to stay, and Washington residents are getting used to it. The Liquor Board has changed, too. WSLCB used to stand for Washington State Liquor Control Board, now it stands for Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. How's that for change?
- Written by Rand Sealey
A week ago, we stopped on our way back to Walla Walla from Seattle to stop at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center. It is located on Wine Country Road in Prosser, off I-82 (Exit 82) next to the Desert Wind Winery. We found our visit to be very interesting and educational.
Dr. Walter J. Clore is considered the father of vinifera grape growing in Washington. He arrived in Pullman in 1934 to study horticulture, and in 1937, landed a job at the WSU Research Center in Prosser. Later, he began testing grape varieties, and, in 1960, partnered wit Charles Nagel to determine what varieties grow best in certain places. He retired from WSU in 1976, but continued his studies. He passed on in 2003, and will forever be remembered as the "Father of Washington Wine."
At the Center, we tasted several Washington Wines with Tasting Room Lead, Mitzi Hadley and Executive Director, Abbey Cameron. The September Tasting theme was "Back to School Month," with wines from the four colleges with enology and viticulture programs, Walla Walla Community College (College Cellars), South Seattle College (Northwest Wine Academy), Washington State University ("blended learning") and Yakima Valley Community College (Yakima Valley Vintners). October's theme is" Lemtoberfest" featuring Limburger wines and Washington and German wine comparisons. For lunch, we had chicken sandwiches with a flight of white wines. The tasting room also has a wine shop where wines from around the state can be purchased.
The Center also has educational and meeting rooms were visitors can learn more about Washington Wines. We also saw exhibits on the history of Washington winemaking and maps of the state's American Viticultural Areas, along with a show of art works. The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center definitely is worth a stop.
- Written by Rand Sealey
In the October issue of the Review of Washington Wines, there are 31 red wines from the 2014 vintage out of a total of 46 reds. This is an indication that most of the wines now being released are 2014s and are going into a maturing cycle as the 2015's are just entering its release cycle (eight in the October issue).
Vintage release cycles are the natural progression of wineries moving from one vintage to the next. Wineries release new vintages either when the supply of a previous vintage has been depleted and when they are deemed drinkable enough for release. Only a few wineries hold wines for more than a year or so after bottling. Wineries, like many businesses, need cash flow and releasing new vintages is how this keeps going.
The 2014 vintage was another warm year (preceded by 2013 and followed by 2015, both warm years). There was a hot summer, with some days above 110 degrees, and a mild fall led to much of the harvesting completed by mid October. This resulted in ripe, well balanced wines that are already drinking well, although many will benefit from further aging. In other words, 2014 is turning out to be a classic vintage.
As an indication of the classicism of the 2014 reds, here are the top wines of the vintage in the October Review of Washington Wines.
2014 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain ($75) - 19.5/20 points
2014 Pepper Bridge "Trine" Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley ($65) - 19+/20 points
2014 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain ($70) - 19.5/20 points
2014 Woodward Canyon "Charbonneau" Red Wine, Walla Walla County ($79) - 19+/20 po
2014 Woodward Canyon "Old Vines" Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State ($99_ - 19.5/20 points
There are also a fair number (14) of wines scoring 19/20 points in the October issue.
The strand that runs through these 2014s is the depth and balance that the wines possess: fine fruit, good acid balance, and ripe, smooth tannins, all making for approachable, yet age worthy wines. One cannot go wrong buying these wines.
The next vintage cycle, that of the 2015s, will be coming soon. I will be writing about it in the Review Blog accompanying the November issue of the Review of Washington Wines.
- Written by Rand Sealey
From time to time, I will review Oregon and Idaho wines in the Review of Washington Wines. Given the name of this publication, why do wines from other states appear. The rule I use is that if a wine comes from an AVA (American Viticultural Area) that extends into an adjoining state, it may be included in the Review of Washington Wines.
The American Viticultural Areas have nothing to do with State boundaries. They are creations of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury (abbreviated as TTB) which determines what areas may be designated as AVAs, based on terroir and climate data which an AVA a distinct character. There are three AVAs that straddle the borders with adjoining states: the Walla Walla Valley which includes parts of Washington and Oregon, the Columbia Gorge which encompasses both sides of the Columbia River, and the Lewis-Clark Valley which covers parts of the areas around Lewiston in Idaho and Clarkston in Washington.
Recent issues of the Review of Washington wines have covered wines from the three above American Viticultural Areas: The Lewis-Clark Valley in the September issue (Basalt Cellars and Clearwater Canyon Cellars), the Columbia Gorge (including Analemma which is in Mosier, Oregon, but gets most grapes from near White Salmon in Washington), and, of course, the Walla Walla Valley, which has more grape acreage on the Oregon side than the Washington. Tero Estates is a case in point. Both the vineyard, Windrow, and the winery is located near Milton-Freewater in Oregon, which makes it technically an Oregon winery. The Watermill and Zerba wineries are also located in Oregon, with vineyards on that side of the border. For the reasons stated above, they can still be reviewed in this publication.
When reviewing wines outside of these AVAs (and including ones from elsewhere, such as California, the Willamette Valley and other countries) I put them in the Review Blog which covers wines outside the scope of the Review of Washington Wines. For example, I reviewed wines from the Dowsett Family Winery (located in Walla Walla) in the 19 July Blog posting (scroll down to find it). Two were from a family vineyard in the Willamette Valley, the other two from the Columbia Gorge (and therefore included in the September issue).
So, in conclusion, the Review of Washington Wines covers wines from outside of the state's boundary, so long as they come from AVAs that encompass both Washington and an adjoining state.
- Written by Rand Sealey
As of this writing, September 13, the wine grape harvest is under way. At this point, pickings have been mostly white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for BDX whites, and some lower brix grapes for sparkling wines and rosés. Lynn is at LeAnn Hughes' Patina Vineyard this morning to help pick Syrah grapes for Ashley Trout's Vital Wines Rosé.
The weather ahead looks to be moderate with temperatures in the 70's over the next couple of weeks which will be good for the progression of ripening. The main concern right now is smoke from wildfires around the state. In the past few days, gentle breezes have blown smoke away, but this morning, we awoke to brown haze enveloping the Blue Mountains in the Walla Walla Valley. Smoke is particularly worrisome in the Columbia Gorge, where the Eagle Creek fire continues to smolder. James Mantone (Syncline) has shown some frightening pictures on Facebook.
The concern about smoke taint recalls the 2015 harvest. When we were in Lake Chelan last week, we visited Hard Row to Hoe with Judy Phelps while Manson was shrouded in smoke from fires north of the Lake. She worried that 2017 was going to be another 2015. She had me taste some of her 2015's, but I didn't find smoke taint to be noticeable (those wines will be reviewed in the November issue of the Review of Washington Wines - the 2014's will be in October).
Let's hope the smoke clears again soon, and that good weather will hold over the next few weeks. More later!