Tom Hedges stands on the balcony of his stately chateau-style home and looks out over the Sahara-colored acreage he and wife, Anne-Marie...
BENTON CITY, Benton County — Tom Hedges stands on the balcony of his stately chateau-style home and looks out over the Sahara-colored acreage he and wife, Anne-Marie, bought 16 years ago with $5,000. Hot, dry wind rushes over the sloping hillsides a sure sign there’s rain 210 miles west in Seattle, he says.
It’s not surprising he’s right; after all, some say he’s the “guru of Red Mountain.”
The owner of Hedges Family Estate figured out long ago how to bottle up this small Yakima Valley region called Red Mountain. The premier red wine that comes from his grapes is a result of carefully planned harvest, calculated crushing, perfected fermenting and oak-barrel aging.
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But getting grapes into bottles is only half the battle. Marketing the contents is where wineries can win or lose. Swirling, sniffing and sipping are rarely the only predictors of a wine’s success, said Hedges.
“Sometimes the difference between two wines is the perception,” he said. “It’s definitely not what’s in the bottle.”
The Hedges family is overhauling its entire marketing plan, even changing the labels and company name from Hedges Cellars to Hedges Family Estate in hopes that playing up the family ownership could help customers put a face to the wine.
And they are spearheading an effort to turn the Red Mountain area into a wine destination for tourists. Although the region is a 3-½-hour drive from Seattle, the family’s mentality is, “If we build it, they will come.”
What’s in a place
To the Hedges family, the land on Red Mountain is something special. The thick-skinned grapes that grow as a result of long, sunny summer days and cool nights create a distinctive, concentrated taste that can only be found on this acreage, they say.
Red Mountain’s sagebrush-rampant acres were deemed unique enough in 2001 to be designated by the federal government as an American Viticulture Area, or appellation, meaning a unique wine-growing sector. Spanning about 4,000 acres, Red Mountain is the smallest of the seven such areas in the state.
Washington is the second-largest wine producer in the country, with about 300 wineries contributing $2.4 billion to the state’s economy each year, according to the Washington Wine Commission.
The state’s largest winery, Woodinville-based Chateau Ste. Michelle, is building a new winery next door to Hedges.
“Red Mountain has become one of the most sought-after grape-source areas in the state,” said spokesman Keith Love. “We’re going there for the quality of the grapes, but also because of the things that are happening there … it’s an exciting place to be right now.”
Wine competition is fierce, with flashy labels and low-cost lines proving successful in attracting average consumers.
Christophe Hedges, the winery’s marketing manager and Tom’s son, says the only way for a family-run estate to survive is by using “Old World techniques” — tying its product to a distinctive place, as is commonly done in France.
A red triangle logo will be added to labels for Hedges’ Red Mountain Reserve wine, to highlight its origins. About 15,000 bottles of this reserve wine are sold each year.
The marketing scheme — label switch, name change and accompanying promotional efforts — will cost the family $80,000 to $100,0000, said Christophe Hedges. The effect, he believes, will be a 10 percent increase in projected sales, on top of the 5 percent growth the winery would otherwise see.
The company now sells about 65,000 cases a year, double its sales from a decade ago,
The Hedges family in 1997 built a tasting room in Issaquah, where the business is now based, but still owe the growth to Red Mountain.
The goal is to persuade the nine other wineries in the appellation to add the logo on bottles of their Red Mountain wines, said Christophe Hedges. Some of the neighboring wineries have expressed interest, though no cohesive branding effort has been planned yet.
“If you’re a small appellation, it is possible to do common marketing … it’s always helpful to have numbers to give you power,” said Kiona Vineyards general manager Scott Williams.
On many days, there’s more chance of spotting a deer than a tourist along Highway 224. Tucked below Red Mountain, Benton City boasts a resident population of 2,600 — about the same number who visit Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on a Friday night.
But the Hedges family thinks that in five to 10 years it could be the next Napa, with better planning than the burgeoning California wine region.
Last spring, they helped form the Red Mountain Estates Association, a group that came up with a master plan to develop Benton City into a recognized wine town.
They worked with the state Department of Natural Resources, which is leasing out about 650 acres of Red Mountain land for vineyards or winery use only. If it’s all leased, the state could take in about a half a million dollars a year.
Experts from elsewhere say that despite the merits of Red Mountain wines, the geographical hurdles to developing a tourism business are significant.
Jon Fredrickson, a wine-market expert at San Francisco-based consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates, said that while Washington wines are making their mark nationally, the most successful wine destinations generally are within a half-day’s drive from a major metropolitan area.
“If they are that remote, and there aren’t fairly large cities around, it’s more difficult to build a tourist destination,” said Fredrickson.
Dan Berger, wine columnist for Santa Rosa, Calif.-based newsletter Vintage Experiences, said Seattle is a booming market for wine lovers.
The Red Mountain area is “distinctive and important,” Berger said, but attracting a mass of fine dining, accommodations and other businesses could be difficult because “no one wants to take a lot of money and plunk it in the middle of nowhere.”
But Christophe Hedges argues that the distance from Seattle makes Red Mountain even more ideal as a tourist getaway, because those who do visit will stay longer. He predicts major infrastructure, including hotels and restaurants, popping up by the end of 2006.
Chateau Ste. Michelle, which attracts 300,000 tourists a year to its Woodinville winery, will start building its $6 million Red Mountain winery in the fall as a joint venture with one of the world’s oldest wine families, the Antinoris. The winery wants to tap into the Red Mountain grape source, and also into the visitor potential it sees in Eastern Washington.
“There is still so much potential on Red Mountain with tourism and wine clubs,” said winery spokesman Love. “Now’s the time to get in, frankly.”
Christina Siderius: 206-515-5066 or email@example.com