RED MOUNTAIN, Wash. – Whenever JJ Williams reads another story about the demise of Lemberger, he shakes his head, checks his sales numbers and smiles.
The champion of Washington Lemberger finds the obscure Austrian red grape to be easy to sell and wonderful to drink.
Williams is the sales manager for Kiona Vineyards & Winery, Red Mountain’s original grape grower and wine producer. His father, Scott, is the winemaker. And his grandfather, John, is the family patriarch who came up with the idea of planting Lemberger some 40 years ago on this ridge in the eastern Yakima Valley that once was covered with sagebrush.
“Lemberger is a heck of a wine to sell,” Williams told Great Northwest Wine. “We’ve been selling it for a long time.”
Longer than anyone in the United States. The Williams family planted its first Lemberger in 1976, thanks in no small part to Walter Clore, viewed by many as “the father of Washington” who brought the red grape into Washington from British Columbia in the 1940s. It languished in Washington State University’s test vineyard near the Yakima Valley town of Prosser until John Williams and his planting partner Jim Holmes decided to put it on Red Mountain.
In 1982, Kiona Vineyards & Winery released the inaugural 1980 vintage, which is purported to be the first varietal Lemberger produced and bottled in the United States. Today, the Williams family farms 13.1 acres of Lemberger amid its 238 acres of Red Mountain wine grapes.
From there, Clore championed Lemberger as a grape that Washington grape growers should embrace, just as California was latching onto Zinfandel. Clore argued that Lemberger could handle the hottest summers and harshest winters and still produce a wine that is fruit-forward, low in tannins, full of acidity and able to stand alone or make other grapes better through blending.
In other words, it was perfect. Except for the name. Invariably, wine marketers and consumers would ask if it smelled like the notoriously stinky German cheese (which is spelled “Limburger” and has no connection to the grape other than phonics). So some tried to call it by its German name: Blaufränkisch. Some have tried (with various levels of success) to name it Blue Franc or Bleu Noir.
Williams is having none of that.
Loving Lemberger at Kiona
Kiona Vineyards & Winery produces more than 4,000 cases of Lemberger per year – which might just be more than anyone else in the country. Williams doesn’t sweat the name; he embraces it. He’s happy to have Lemberger because it helps him sell other Kiona wines.
“You have something that is intrinsically good and has appeal,” he said. “It’s affordable and has a unique name that tells a story. That sounds good, right? Lemberger is fruit-forward. It’s one of the softer red wines that we make, and that makes it immensely appealing and versatile.”
And don’t get him started about its food-pairing abilities.
“You can pair it with pizza. You can pair it with barbecue. You can dress it up and do lamb or dress it down and do spaghetti. And you can find it for $15.”
It can be argued that when someone says “Kiona” to Washington wine lovers, their reply will be “Lemberger” followed by “I love it!” Kiona’s Lemberger is so popular, Williams has stopped pouring it in his busy Red Mountain tasting room because, ironically, it is so in demand that nobody will buy anything else. And Williams has a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay to sell.
But when Williams is making sales calls on the road, Lemberger is his secret weapon. He might walk into a wine shop in Massachusetts late in an afternoon, after seven other winery reps have stopped in to show their Cabs, Chardonnays, Zins and Pinot Noirs. Every one of them has talked about their region’s superior soils, the winemaker’s passion and the vineyard’s pedigree.
But Williams has Lemberger, and that’s different than every other winery that shop owner has talked to. Lemberger is a wine he can sell to wine lovers who are tired of Cab and Zin.
“People don’t want to get stuck in a rut,” he said. “Different wines can have different roles in someone’s life. Lemberger is unique enough that it creates its own story. We sell Lemberger not as the cornerstone of our portfolio but as a piece of intrigue.”
Sure, Lemberger acreage has dropped off significantly in Washington. At one time in the 1990s, it peaked around 250 acres. Today, one would be hard pressed to find more than 50 acres planted in the Columbia Valley.
Williams truly could not care less. He sells Lemberger in 15 states – primarily on the coasts because out-of-the-mainstream wines are hard to market in the middle of the country – as well as in Hong Kong.
At Taste Washington each spring, Williams often is the only winery pouring Lemberger. So in the program, he’s listed all by himself, and that gets curious wine lovers to come over to try it – as well as his Cab and Riesling.
No worries about name
The idea that the name Lemberger hurts sales does not fly with Williams. He maintains that’s mostly an issue with wine marketers and winery owners. He does think that trying to change Lemberger’s name to Blue Franc has hurt the grape.
Imagine if Cabernet Sauvignon went by five different names, he said. That would be a hard sell, too. Instead, the Williams family has stuck with Lemberger since that first wine was released in 1982. And that, it seems, is what has cracked the code for Kiona and has fulfilled the promise that Clore saw in the grape.
“We’ve been able to hold onto an obscure grape and make it our own,” he said. “We’ve called it Lemberger for more than three decades. We’re one of the few who have called it Lemberger for any length of time.”
Maintaining consistent quality has certainly helped solidify Kiona’s reputation with Lemberger – thanks in no small part to its famous ability to handle the occasional bad winter in Washington’s Columbia Valley.
In fact, Kiona has planted its Lemberger based on where other grapes won’t necessarily thrive. Red Mountain is as susceptible to frost and freezing temperatures as anywhere in the Yakima Valley, and the Williams family noticed that a location where only sagebrush grew was getting hit pretty hard during these winter events, so the decision was made to plant Lemberger there.
“If we’re going to have a 20-year freeze there, let’s plant Lemberger,” he said. “Historically, it gets very cold in that area. The cold spells we’ve had have prompted us to grow more Lemberger. It’s more valuable than sagebrush.”
As it turns out, in both the 2004 and 2010 winter events that badly hurt Washington vineyards, Lemberger came through with no significant damage.
Thanks to this, it’s is finding new homes, including the Finger Lakes region of New York and even in Michigan, where winters are famously frigid.
Up the Yakima Valley at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser, Lemberger has found a fan in April Reddout, the wine program director.
“I love Lemberger,” she said. “I love that it is a variety that offers unique things different than Merlot, Syrah and Cab. It has its own special qualities.”
Whenever possible, Reddout carries it in the Clore Center’s tasting room and wine shop. There aren’t a lot of choices around Washington, but she does like to rotate between the few producers that do make it. She said some consumers do ask about the name – and a potential link to the cheese – but that is an opportunity to educate and create another fan.
“When people try it and realize how smooth and light and easy-drinking it is, they fall in love with it,” she said. “They get excited that it’s a new wine to explore.”
When Reddout carries Kiona’s Lemberger at the Clore Center, it flies off the shelves, thanks to its legion of fans.
And that makes Williams smile knowingly. For Kiona, Lemberger is here to stay.