BELLEVUE, Wash. — Erez Klein wants shoppers at Whole Foods Market stores in Washington state and Oregon to view British Columbia wines as products of the Pacific Northwest, not a foreign country.
“You can get wines from Croatia, Serbia and Corsica easier than we can get wines from our neighbor,” Klein told Great Northwest Wine. “That’s just not right.”
He’s neither politician nor bureaucrat, but as the wine buyer in the Pacific Northwest for Whole Foods Market, Klein is in a position to make a difference. So in October, he kicks off a promotion to feature eight B.C. wines at the company’s 15 stores in Washington and Oregon.
“A political line shouldn’t prevent us from doing what we do best,” Klein said. “We’re at the start of a new beginning with trading in wines across the border. We have so many things in common, and we have more to learn from each other. And these wines absolutely deserve the attention.”
Whole Foods buyer works with 8 wines, 8 wineries
Klein selected a different variety from eight wineries in the Okanagan Valley, factoring in quality, price, production, reputation and size of the winery.
The wines to be sold in Washington and Oregon at U.S. prices, each made with Okanagan Valley fruit, are:
• Burrowing Owl Estate Winery 2011 Cabernet Franc, $39.99
• Meyer Family Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, $31.99
• Nk’Mip Cellars 2012 Merlot, $25.99
• Quails’ Gate Estate Winery 2012 Pinot Noir, $22.99
• St. Hubertus Estate Winery 2013 Pinot Blanc, $19.99
• Tantalus Vineyards 2013 Riesling, $24.99
• Tinhorn Creek Vineyards 2013 Pinot Gris, $24.99
Each of the 15 Whole Foods grocers in Washington and Oregon will stock all eight wines. Larger stores with a history of high wine sales will receive more inventory.
“The only wine available in the Northwest prior to this program was the Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir,” Klein said.
Andy Gebert, winemaker for St. Hubertus in Kelowna, said he’s thrilled with the opportunity to showcase and sell his Pinot Blanc in the United States.
“For years, we’ve exported wines to Japan to Switzerland to everywhere except to our neighbors,” said Gebert, who co-owns St. Hubertus and sister brand Oak Bay with his brother. “It made sense that we connect on this. Ninety-nine percent of the things in Washington and Oregon are the same as us — starting with food — but the system in how wine is being sold is the only huge difference. We are very, very controlled by the government.”
BC Wine Institute serves as liaison on promotion
Peter Wille is director of international sales for Bacas Family Estates, which includes Quails’ Gate and Plume Winery in Napa Valley. He also sits on the export committee for the British Columbia Wine Institute, the government organization that represents 134 of the 234 grape wineries in the province. Gebert said the institute, created in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, played a major role in the Whole Foods Market program.
“We have just a small footprint in that market and this Whole Foods promotion is going to introduce us to a new group of customers,” Wille said. “A lot of people down there are unaware of what we’re doing up here.”
There are 9,800 acres of vineyard in the province — compared with 52,000 acres immediately south in Washington state — and a mere dribble of British Columbia wine makes it to market beyond Alberta as the industry struggles to slake the thirst of customers in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.
“We don’t have a whole lot of wine left to sell,” Wille said.
Some vintners, however, hint at a potential glut around the corner. There have been increased investments in vineyards as a response to the demand. Older sites are transitioned to more productive and popular varieties, and new plantings are coming online throughout the Okanagan Valley. Combined with warm vintages in 2013 and 2014, that means more grapes.
For example, Quails’ Gate will have an additional 2,000 cases of Chardonnay coming on the market soon, so the Whole Foods campaign and the push into the U.S. make sense.
“We didn’t want to wait until we have an inventory issue,” he said.
Bid for Wine Spectator attention also drives promotion
The desire for global attention and international media coverage also helps drive the interest in the Whole Foods campaign.
“In addition to access to a burgeoning consumer market in the U.S., it gives our winery access to competitions and reviews from reputable publications such as Wine Spectator, which consumers worldwide respect and read for wine recommendations,” said Rania Peters, marketing manager for Quails’ Gate and a former export manager for Francis Ford Coppola winery in the Napa Valley.
It’s difficult for magazines in the U.S. — and their readers — to follow the British Columbia wine industry because the wines are not readily available. And Quails’ Gate plans to build upon the Whole Foods campaign by getting placement with a small number of top restaurants in the Puget Sound, particularly as a by-the-glass option.
An advantage Quails’ Gate has over the other wineries in the promotion is its relationship with Vinum Wine and Spirits Importing and Distributing, a 10-year-old company with headquarters in Seattle and branches in Portland and Boise. In fact, with a month to go before the Whole Foods launch, Vinum’s website indicates it only works with one Canadian brand — Quails’ Gate.
Wille said Vinum lists Quails’ Gate’s Chardonnay, Reserve Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir — the same one that Whole Foods will sell — and the Reserve Pinot Noir. All five of those wines are available through MadWine.com, online store for historic Seattle retailer Esquin Wine & Spirits.
“We’ve been with Vinum a few years, and they’ve agreed to be the agent for all the other wineries in this particular promotion,” Wille said. “And then Whole Foods will determine which wines they continue with. Vinum will not be carrying all these wines after the end of this, so the ones that get picked up with probably find their own agent.”
Whole Foods buys BC wines from Seattle-based importer
Earlier this year, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver — led by founding winemaker Sandra Oldfield — began using Sonoma-based Ship It Home to provide direct-to-consumer sales in the United States. It finally allows Oldfield to offer her wines to her family and friends in the Bay Area, where the San Francisco 49ers fan grew up.
In the case of Whole Foods, Klein said the law prevents his company from serving as importer or distributor, but he’s already committed to buying all the bottles for the promotion.
“I’m the guy who’s spending the money and taking the risk,” Klein said. “It’s a guaranteed sale for (Vinum), but these wineries had to work with them to get these wines. I didn’t want to be involved from that standpoint. We told (the wineries) if you have a different way to get the wines down here, that’s fine, but everyone took the easy way of going with Vinum, which is great.”
Until this month, Klein said only two BC wineries were available to him on any scale — Quails’ Gate and boutique Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars in Okanagan Falls. Other wineries occasionally work with brokers to bring small amounts to wine into the U.S.
Wille said he admires the collaborative work by Whole Foods and Vinum for this promotion. And it’s not a money maker for the wineries either, he added.
“It’s actually quite difficult,” Wille said. “There’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be done, and the wines need to be sold at a lower rate than they would be sold in British Columbia. From an accountant’s standpoint, that doesn’t make sense, especially if you already are selling all your wine, but it’s really about building a brand and an appellation. And Washington state is so close. We want to promote that we’re a part of the Pacific Northwest — not just British Columbia.”
Pinot Blanc by St. Hubertus charms Whole Foods buyer
“I think that is a spectacular wine,” Klein said. “I don’t think there are many people who can capture the essence of that grape. You will spend more than 20 bucks on a Pinot Blanc from France, Italy or Germany and not get one of that quality. The quality of that wine is very high, and in my mind, that might be the steal of the group.”
The Whole Foods retail price for these wines shows a mark up of about $6 in most instances. When told what the price of each wine will be sold at in the Oregon and Washington stores, Wille said, “Someone has really sharpened their pencil on the prices for these wines.”
The one exception is the Black Hills 2012 Nota Bene ($54 Canadian), but the Meritage-style blend from a winery 10 miles north of Oroville, Wash., is viewed by many as the cult wine of Canada. And that vintage no longer is available at the winery.
“We didn’t get very much of it, and my guess is that Canadians will come down and buy it all,” Klein said with a bit of a chuckle.
Tantalus showcased their wines at the 2013 Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle and quickly became sought-after by sommeliers in the region.
“This is simply put a world-class Riesling in my opinion,” Klein said. “I wish we could work with the Old Vines Riesling. Wow, that wine just stops you.”
Aboriginal-owned Nk’Mip fits Whole Foods model
“When you think of tribal lands, you don’t think of a community like Osoyoos where the tribe has built a destination hotel, a resort, a winery, a conference facility, a golf course, a restaurant and their own vineyards,” Klein said. “This is an innovative band that has a long history of providing for their people. I don’t why this type of model is replicated in more places.”
The Osoyoos Indian Band serves as a contrast to many tribes in the United States that often are known primarily for casinos, smoke shops and fireworks sales. Offering products from companies such as Nk’Mip is a concept Whole Foods prides itself in.
“We didn’t want big corporations involved in this,” Klein said. “We wanted to feature places where peoples’ lives are changed because of what happens in the vineyard every year. You have those kinds of people stories at different levels with each of these wines.
“At Whole Foods Market, we all have the same mission — providing quality products for people to enjoy again and again, and to feel good about who you are supporting with your purchase,” Klein added.
BCWI drives awareness with media tour, trade tasting
Support for the campaign began earlier this summer with a media tour for Seattle-based writers of all eight wineries, a trip orchestrated by the Wines of British Columbia, which is part of the BCWI.
“Tourism is a huge thought behind this,” Wille said. “You can easily jump in the car to get here from Washington, and a lot of the wineries have accommodations and restaurants now. The tourism is a huge angle.”
In late September, the BCWI will conduct a trade tasting of the eight wines Klein selected. And the stage in Seattle will be none other the acclaimed Dahlia Lounge, one of several restaurants owned by celebrity chef Tom Douglas, a longtime champion of Washington wines and the region’s farm-to-fork movement.
And during October, despite the crush of harvest, Klein said he’s scheduled a handful of the BC winemakers to pour at select Whole Foods Market stores. Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek announced on Twitter that she’ll be among those sharing her story and her wine.
“They will be at the Seattle-area stores on Oct. 2-3-4, and on those days there will be one or two hours when some of these wines are being poured,” Klein said. “The laws in Washington are very restrictive on holding wine tastings in grocery stores.”
Concept for BC wine campaign began last year
“The desire is very high, but every time I tried to push a door open, I’d run up against prices that were too high or the wineries didn’t have enough supply to take any south,” Klein said.
So a year ago, he approached the BC Wine Institute with his concept to spotlight some of the top wines from the Okanagan Valley.
“There were enough wineries up there that want to start supporting sales in Washington and Oregon so that local people when they travel up to (the Okanagan Valley) can get their products when they come back home and not have to feel they are smugglers breaking the law by bringing a few bottles of wine across the border,” Klein said.
He flew into Kelowna on a snowy February day and spent the better part of a week screening the 18 wineries that expressed an interest in participating in the Whole Foods campaign. Criteria included sufficient inventory of a particular wine to maintain shelf space, responsible farming and business practices, price point and quality.
“This is not a one-time deal, and that was the first cut right there,” Klein said. “All eight of these wines are committed to increasing their presence in the Northwest, and they plan to continue to work the market, get restaurant placements and slowly build their brands in the market place.”
In July, Klein returned to the Okanagan Valley, visited each winery and revisited the wines a final time. He expected one or two wineries to drop out at some point. No one did.
“It’s very beautiful, and I knew there was a lot of high-quality wines, but I had to get myself up there to understand the region and the wines,” Klein said. “Theirs is a bright and interesting future, and they’ve really only started up after NAFTA. That’s 25 years ago, so we’re really looking at Oregon in about 1990 in terms of their development, so I’m very excited to be representing this one small region and help open the door.”
And while the fall months make it difficult on wineries because of all the hands needed during harvest, Klein said it was important to roll out the promotion in October.
“There are only certain times when I can get these wines down and have them get this kind of exposure they need,” Klein said. “And I feel that fall is the better time to offer these higher-priced wines. We usually don’t put together a program where the lowest-priced wine is $20. These start at $20 and shoot way up, so that’s very unusual for us and involves quite a bit of risk, but we felt that if we started it in the fall, that gives us the entire holiday season to sell through if it doesn’t take off right away.”
Klein brings global perspective to Pacific Northwest
“I’ve lived all over the country — the Northeast, Chicago and California — then I decided wanted to live in Seattle,” he said.
He’s been employed by Whole Foods Market — headquartered in Austin, Texas — for more than a decade, but he’s been involved with the wine industry for the better part of 25 years. He worked at San Francisco’s Square One Restaurant with acclaimed wine country chef Joyce Goldstein and in Napa Valley as wine director for luxury resort Auberge du Soleil.
At Whole Foods, he recently tweaked his job title from beer, wine and spirits buyer to “libations procurement.”
“It’s gotten a lot of comments, and it carries a less serious tone about what I do than ‘wine buyer’ does,” Klein said with a chuckle.
While he enjoys his job, the work out of company’s Bellevue office isn’t as glamorous as many would believe.
“People think that’s all about opening bottles, and swirling, sniffing and tasting a few wines every day,” Klein said. “Most of my time is spent with spreadsheets.”
Fall sales will decide future of BC wine in Whole Foods
Pacific Northwest customers have set wine-related trends for Whole Foods Market in the past, including Oregon shoppers supporting the in-store recycling center for corks. The response lifted beyond a pilot program, so Klein and the wineries hope shoppers will embrace these BC wines, which traditionally are fruit-forward, low in alcohol, high acid and food friendly.
“Whole Foods Market is a public company, so we have to make money,” Klein said. “The bottom line is important, but our mission also includes education and serving as a place where people want to be able to see and try things that are new. That means taking risks and being first to market with new ideas and newfangled eco-packaging, which is another of our responsibilities.”
And by January, Klein and those eight wineries in the Okanagan Valley will know how successful their campaign has been.
“The program will run for the month of October — unless they sell out — and they will be available in our stores for the remainder of the year,” Klein said. “Come January and February, if they don’t get reordered, then they will go away. If half of them succeed and half don’t, that’s what the market place is going to say. You don’t stock something your shoppers aren’t looking for.”
However, Klein is optimistic his customers will enjoy the opportunity to buy British Columbia wines from Whole Foods Market stores and bring them home as part of their weekly shopping rather than resort to smuggling cases across the U.S./Canada border.
“In the ultimate world, we’ll be looking for twice as many wines to carry,” Klein said, “and then some day there will be a British Columbia section in all our stores.”