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Sunday, Nov. 02, 2008

Washington wine exports growing

WALLA WALLA -- Wines from Reininger Winery in Walla Walla have been on store shelves in Japan and British Columbia for seven or eight years.

But this month, several cases of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and a red blend were shipped to China through Transnational Ventures Inc., a Port Townsend-based sales and marketing company.

"I think the China thing is one of the most exciting things that's happened as of late," said Kelly Tucker, Reininger's general manager. "We want to grow (the export) business. Obviously in today's economic times, although it hasn't happened to us yet, we could see the day that the U.S market becomes more difficult and other markets may help us out."

Wines that Washington wineries ship overseas may be a small portion of their overall production, but it's a growing market.

Exports make up about 5 percent of the state's wine business, said Lily Huynh, export manager for the Washington Wine Commission.

"I think it's important to build the image of Washington wines as a world-class wine growing region," Huynh said. "The more your wines are out there, it creates this global recognition. That recognition is important for the sustainability of the industry."

Eric Rosenberg, export marketing consultant with Seattle-based Bryant Christie, estimated Washington exported about 175,000 cases of wine for the fiscal year July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008, although not all exporting wineries respond to the company's survey, he said.

The year likely was strong because of all of the commission's marketing efforts and an increasing awareness of the region's wine offerings, Rosenberg said, and also because of a weaker dollar. He said quantifying the value of exports is difficult because of the widely varying prices of wines.

Transnational Ventures was founded about a year ago by Jonathan Ryweck, who identified the Chinese market as having enormous potential for Washington wines. He's made many trips to China to meet importers and distributors and is even learning Mandarin to build rapport with the people he interacts with.

"I'm a real firm believer that if we can get the wines in the consumer's mouth, we'll be very successful," he said.

Clients enjoy the more fruit-forward, less acidic flavor profile of the state's wines, he said.

Ryweck also is working with Whitman Cellars in Walla Walla, and more recently he began a partnership with Prosser's Kestrel Vintners to market its Lady in Red and Pure Platinum table wines.

So far, 56 cases of Reininger and Whitman Cellars wines have shipped, Ryweck said.

"We've been looking to export some of our wine for years," said Leo Kirk, national sales manager for Kestrel.

"(We) thought our wines, especially our two table blends because they have very distinctive labels with '40s- and '50s-era pinup models, that they might be something uniquely attractive in the market over there," he said. "And they're easy drinking."

Kestrel produces about 35,000 cases per year and exports make up only 1 percent to 2 percent of its business, Kirk said. He said the winery sells its products in Denmark and Canada and is looking at Japan.

"I think one of the interesting parts of the wine business is that as we spread our tentacles out, you never know who you're going to touch and who you're going to impact," he said. "So we have always had the notion that it was best to continue to try to open new markets."

The Washington Wine Commission has worked for years to develop programs to introduce the state's wines into foreign markets.

Huynh said Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan are the commission's three target markets, although there are Washington wines in many more countries as well.

The commission holds a tasting festival in Tokyo every two years that is attended by 25 to 30 Washington wineries, she said. Professionals from various wine-related industries also are invited to visit Washington wine country, and each May some 65 to 70 international buyers from 20 countries get a full tour.

"That's our opportunity to reach out ... and have targeted efforts to countries like China that aren't our formal target markets," Huynh said.

Some of the state's biggest exporters include Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Brands, as well as Hogue Cellars of Prosser, L'Ecole No. 41 of Walla Walla, Pacific Rim of West Richland, Hedges Family Estate, which has a winery and vineyards on Red Mountain, Gordon Brothers of Pasco and Badger Mountain Vineyards & Powers Winery of Kennewick.

Selling wines abroad also opens the door a bit wider for related tourism in the state, Rosenberg said.

"Export activities help open up the Washington wine industry to a global consumer base instead of a domestic consumer base," he said. "It drives a growing number of tourists to this region."

Ryweck said he's a little concerned that global economic uncertainty may hurt the Asian export market, but he hasn't experienced problems yet.

And he's convinced that with a little dedication, Washington wine exports in China will "take off."

At Reininger, diversifying the winery's markets was a big motivation for taking Ryweck's offer about six months ago, Tucker said.

"It just seemed like a good idea," Tucker said. "In pretty short order he's generated new business."