Williamette Valley has a disproportionate share of small wine producers. More than 70 percent produce less than 5,000 cases a year, which makes national distribution futile. Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker of Lenne wines in Yamhill County, attributes the small production to pinot noir, the region’s primary breadwinner.
“Pinot noir doesn’t lend itself to mass production because it’s expensive to grow. And, our model is high quality,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. He produces 2,000 cases a year.
With quantities so small, most distributors do not want to spend the effort to get them on the shelves. Even if they found a cult wine to make them money, there isn’t enough to satisfy demand.
So, Oregon winemakers are bypassing the distribution network in droves. Nearly all of them are selling their wines direct to consumer. As more states liberalize their laws restricting out-of-state alcohol shipments, Willamette winemakers can cast a wider net. Most of them easily sell out their productions — some are allocating their wines.
The primary venue for direct-to-consumer sales is the tasting room. Many of these wineries are a short hop form Portland and some producers have even opened separate tasting rooms in the city to market their wines.
Tom Fitzpatrick of Alloro wines told me that tasting rooms have become competitive and he has had to make improvements to remain a draw. But the effort has born success: direct-to-consumer sales in his tasting room rose from $50,000 in 2009 to $700,000 in 2018.
Fitzpatrick sells 15% of his wine to distributors just to get his name out there.
For the consumer, it requires a visit to the region to discover small producers who, like an oyster, wait for nutrients to come to them. No where else on the West Coast is this so apparent.
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