Niche becoming more popular, and retail is responding
BBJ Photo/VINCENT AIOSA
|Everett native Jeff Wicklund visited Bellingham several years ago and noticed the absence of a well-stocked wine-shop in the area. He moved to the area shortly thereafter and opened Purple Smile Wines.|
Jeff Wicklund can sniff out a town ripe with wine potential like he can smell blueberry and spice from a red table blend.
On a recent cold, sunny mid-morning at his wine shop in Fairhaven, Purple Smile Wines, Wicklund, whose friends call him “Wick,” banters easily with a female customer about Chilean wine recommendations, and descriptions of his shop’s recent release.
“It’s really juicy, a lot of blueberry and plum, and it has that spicy finish,” he said.
Wicklund, a solidly built man with blonde hair and glinting blue eyes, who has a childlike face and a voice like a radio announcer, can spin wine conversation like a corkscrew, as can his savvy counterpart. She asks if Wicklund has tried a certain Malbec from Chile.
“I’ve tried so many Malbecs. We lived in England for five years, and you know they have wine stores like this all over,” she says. “Well, I’m just glad you’re here.”
She and the rest of Bellingham’s unfurling mass of amateur sommeliers.
For some, listening to Wicklund and his customer confer over wine regions, vintages and corking techniques may sound a lot like a foreign language, but the reality is that Bellingham residents are increasingly becoming more and more literate in the wine discourse.
In fact, in the next few months, three new wine retail outlets are opening in downtown Bellingham alone. These include Gateway Wines on Holly Street, a DIY winemaking shop called Whatcom Winemakers on East Champion Street, and a new tasting room on State Street for the local Chuckanut Ridge Wine Co.
Local wine experts say a blend of factors is contributing to the increase in wine-related businesses in Bellingham, including an aging population with high incomes and sophisticated palates, and a reflection of a greater trend in wine connoisseurship nationally.
The wine trend here also reflects a statewide boom in wine production that has made regional residents more aware of the fruits of their own bacchanalian backyard. According to the Washington Wine Commission, a winery opens every 15 days in Washington, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing wine regions.
When Wicklund visited Bellingham for the first time several years ago after owning a wine shop in his hometown of Everett, he sensed something was amiss.
He noticed that all the grocery stores had good wine selections, but …
“I’m looking around going ‘Wow, everybody has wine stewards and there’s a great selection of wine, but where is the cool wine shop?’” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I just kept looking around thinking, ‘Am I missing something?’ I said this is as ripe a place as any in the state to open a wine shop.”
“A little citrus. Maybe some strawberry. Mmm. Passion fruit, mmm, and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupcon of like, uh, asparagus, and, there’s a, just a flutter of, like a, like a nutty Edam cheese.”
— Miles, from the film “Sideways,” while wine tasting.
Wicklund attributes Bellingham’s prime potential for wine consumerism to the town’s demographics, which he describes as highly educated, discerning and aging (or being of a greater “vintage” as he would say) — the crowd that wine appeals to the most, he said.
Dan Radil, who teaches wine courses at Bellingham Technical College and writes a weekly wine column for The Bellingham Herald, said he sees wine consumption increasing steadily in Bellingham.
“As people get a little more mature, they move away from the ‘let’s go out for a beer’ to, ‘there’s a little more variety with wines, and wines pair up well with food (mentality),’” Radil said. “The demographics are getting older. Bellingham is not just a college town anymore. There is a lot of growth.”
And with that growth comes higher incomes, or so many wine experts surmise.
Radil said Bellingham consumers are getting more adventurous and spending more on wine lately, breaching the $12 bottle of Chardonnay habit for $20 bottles of more exotic reds.
Michael Peterson, owner of The Vines wine shop, is banking on those bucks to support his new endeavor, Gateway Wines, which will begin selling high-end French, Spanish and Washington labels in the Gateway Building on Holly Street this month.
The Vines, which Peterson opened five years ago (Wicklund apparently missed this cavernous space with its innocuous front entrance during his first visit to Bellingham) caters mostly to consumers with moderately priced tastes, but he thinks there is a growing market for more expensive bottles.
“With the general growth of Bellingham, I think many of the people that are moving here have a fair amount of money and a lot of them are more willing to spend money on higher-end wine,” he said.
Drinking wine can be a rich cultural experience that involves the discussion of history, geography, geology and taste, which fits perfectly with Bellingham’s reputation as a college town with a highly educated population, say many local wine experts.
“I like how wine continues to evolve. Like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.”
— Maya, from the film “Sideways”
BBJ Photo/VINCENT AIOSA
|Jeff Wicklund, owner of Purple Smile Wines, said wine shops and wine-tasting events are becoming more popular locally because of both the reported health benefits of wine and the explosion of Washington as a wine-producing region.|
With wine, there is a lot to talk about: regional growing conditions, climate change, politics (France, for example, is known for sponsoring highly political grape-growing and bottling policies), food pairing, label art and of course, the frisson of bubbly chatter that occurs from a slight buzz.
“You can have a two-or three-hour event and wine can be the subject of conversation for the whole two or three hours,” Peterson said.
This panache is what people love and hate about wine — its perceived potential for pretension, Wicklund said. But the real clincher, for most, is the experiential aspect of wine tasting, which has become immensely popular nationwide and in Bellingham.
“There are a lot of different ways to sell wine,” Wicklund said. “But you’re not really selling wine. You’re selling an experience.”
Wicklund likened wine consumers’ proclivity for buying expensive wines to people who spend money on expensive hobbies like skiing, golfing or diving.
Wine-tasting events have become increasingly popular across the United States and in Bellingham, a trend that Wicklund and Radil say coincided with reports of red wine’s antioxidant health benefits.
“Bellingham (residents are) pretty conscious of things like that,” Radil said.
Pair that with the fact that wine tasting is one of the most socially acceptable forms of consuming alcohol and that wine tasting involves all of the allure of wine’s culture and sociability, and you have a recipe for an increasingly popular experience.
“You’re not going to the bar, you’re going to the wine tasting,” Wicklund said. “People get the bug. They’re like, ‘I finally realize that this intriguing fermented grape juice is something I can really appreciate. I want to explore it.’ It’s vast.”
Because of the increased popularity of wine tasting, Wicklund founded his Purple Tooth Institute, which hosts wine education courses such as blending techniques and wine-food pairing every month. These classes have been selling out consistently, and Wicklund will likely add a second monthly class soon, as well as offering tours to the state’s wine regions.
Peterson started out offering a wine-tasting class once every other month at The Vines, but now hosts them every other week.
Another factor that is contributing to wine interest in Bellingham and across the state is the boom in Washington wine production seen in the last several years. Experts agree that Washington vineyards are producing world-class wines scoring high points from international wine-rating czars, and Washington residents can’t help but notice the fruits of their agricultural neighbors’ labors.
“Wine in Washington has completely blown up now, since farmers first started growing grapes in the ‘60s. We’re the fastest growing region in the world,” Wicklund said. “Worldwide, Washington wine is becoming well known.”
While there are only a few vineyards in Whatcom County, Radil says he predicts more wineries will begin opening in the area by retirees who have been bitten by the wine bug.
Local wine-shop owners can only say cheers to that.