Okanagan Valley wineries need to think of themselves as collaborators rather than competitors to grow their industry, says the owner of a Washington state winery.
Steve Griessel, owner of Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, Wash., says that sense of collaboration runs deep in Washington’s wine and grape growing community and he believes it has been the foundation for their success.
“I feel very strongly about that, and it says something about who we are as an industry and where we see ourselves being 10 years from now, no matter how large or small, we are all in this together, ” Griessel said.
“We are competing against the rest of the world, not against each other.”
Griessel was among the keynote speakers for the inaugural BC Wine Industry Forum held in Penticton last week.
He talked about the growth of Washington’s winery industry, which contributes $5 billion to the state economy.
Washington’s wine industry produced approximately 17.5 million cases of wine in 2016, with an overall wine grape acreage of more than 55,000 acres. Their industry is comprised of over 900 wineries and 350 grape growers.
Like the Okanagan, Washington vintners are focused on the premium wine market segment.
Washington premium wine production is second only to the Napa Valley in the U.S.
As a comparison, the Okanagan wine industry is also ranked second for Canada, behind only the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, with more than 120 vineyards and 200 wineries, with a grape acreage of 9,900 acres.
“Napa Valley was very much like that when their wine industry was starting,” Griessel said of the collaboration. “It has changed now because the industry has enjoyed great success, and attracted new investors and that shared collaboration has been lost a little in recent years.”
Griessel said the best example of Washington wineries working together was in 2002 when a spring freeze destroyed much the grape crop, leaving many wineries with no product and on the verge of bankruptcy.
“The largest producer in the state stepped up and made sure everyone had a supply of grapes to continue operating that year. That is unheard of in any industry, for a company with the largest marketshare helping its competitors to survive rather than letting them go out of business,” he said.
“But our view as an industry is we walk together to change the world. It is a common vision that unites us all, big and small.”
Griessel said the maturity level of the Okanagan’s wine industry is about 15 to 20 years behind Washington, so the experience of his and and other Washington wineries and grape growers can benefit local producers.
“We can learn a lot from each other,” Griessel said. “The geography and climate is very similar. We get massive heat spikes that present challenges to our growers some years, similar to what you see in the Okanagan.”
He said while the Washington industry has used social media to connect directly with consumers, he said they have also placed greater emphasis on “influencing the influencers” in the wine industry.
“What I have found is that while winning wine competitions is great, it doesn’t really move the needle much on the business side. What does make the needle move significantly is a positive review from a wine critic such as Robert Parker,” he said.
Parker is a renowned American wine critic who gives wine ratings through his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, on a regular basis with international influence.
“Many people think Parker is not as influential anymore but I think that is nuts. What I see is when he passes judgment on a new wine, a positive review moves that needle like nothing else can.”
While marketing remains important, Griessel says their industry has also been a research driver, working with the University of Washington on projects related to the agriculture and wine producing elements of their industry.
“We raised the money to build a wine research centre and donate $1.1 million annually for research projects. We direct that research based on what our greatest needs are, so again there is that collaboration aspect working on the research end as well.”
But the ultimate growth driver, Griessel acknowledged, remains the people in his industry.
“We had to work to convince people initially to change the ‘it does nothing for me’ attitude that our industry wide efforts in research and marketing will benefit the entire industry. We’ve worked hard to change that attitude,” he said.
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