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Wine buyers hit Washington state
By SHANNON DININNY
Associated Press
2009-05-08 01:12 PM
Wine exports from Pacific Northwest wineries barely represent a sliver of the global market, but wine marketers in the region are working to improve their standing around the world.

More than two dozen importers, consultants and hotel and restaurant wine stewards from 23 countries traveled through Washington state this week to sample the region's wines, an event sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission to educate wine buyers from other countries about the area and improve exports.

In 2007, only about 2 percent of all wine made in Washington and Oregon was exported outside the United States. Together, the two states now have about 1,000 wineries.

The opportunities presented by bringing the buyers to the region's vineyards and wineries can't be understated, said Butch Milbrandt, a longtime grape grower who began making his own wine in 2005.

Milbrandt opened a tasting room in Prosser, southeast of Yakima, last year. At a tasting event for the buyers at Desert Wind Winery on Thursday, he poured chardonnay, syrah, petite syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for them to sample.

About a dozen wineries participated, including one from the neighboring state of Oregon.

"They didn't realize Washington state produces so many varieties of wines and in such large amounts, so they're seeing that we're a viable exporter," he said.

During the tasting, Milbrandt scheduled two appointments with buyers in Montreal, Canada, for June. He already has four appointments in London, and said he made good contacts with buyers from Mexico that could generate sales later.

Debjit Dasgupta, an importer from New Delhi, India, where whiskey has long been the alcoholic drink of choice, called the quality of the wines "superb."

"There are a high number of wineries here that should be part of the market," he said.

Consumers in India have only become seriously interested in wine in the past decade, and only about 200,000 cases are imported, largely from France, Italy and Australia, he said. But the figure is growing by about 35 percent a year.

"With the economy growing, it's more money to spend, so they want to experience more finer aspects of life, such as wine," he said. "The understanding of Washington as a wine region is not a lot, but the curiosity is high."

While Canadian consumers are familiar with Oregon's pinot noir, Washington wines only started entering the market in Montreal in the past few years, said Elyse Lambert, a wine consultant there.

"I've been trying to direct my clientele to Washington wines, because they'll have a better quality price," she said. "I'm coming back with more general ideas of what Washington wine offers best, their flagship."

Lambert said she was most impressed by merlots, followed by cabernet sauvignon and syrah. But she also noted that the region is very young, and many wine grape growers are still experimenting to determine which grape varieties work best on their land.

Al Portney, vice president of international sales for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said the key to these events is getting wineries to commit to following up with buyers.

Ste. Michelle, based in Woodinville, Washington, outside of Seattle, is the eighth largest exporter of U.S. wine. All of the larger wine companies are in California.

"Each year, we dive a little further into the international markets with these events," he said. "This is one of the last premier appellations for the world to discover today. And most areas export because they have to export. We haven't had to do that.

"Now it can be a focus as we grow," he said.

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