by Pat Killen
Washington State — think sailing on Lake Washington, apples, lots of rain, Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners and … fine wine.
Fine wine? Yes, absolutely, says Jeff Renshaw, managing director of Orca International, a Tokyo wine supplier.
Since 1999, Renshaw has been hustling to convince the Japanese that Washington State wine is as tasty and as satisfying as some of the better California and French offerings, and at a better price.
But, wait a minute. Isn’t Washington State too wet for growing grapes?
Renshaw explains that, while Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has some of the highest rainfall in the lower 48 states, upwards of 140 inches (356 cm.) a year, the Olympic and Cascade mountains serve as a rain shield for the inland Columbia River basin, where the grapes are grown.
“It’s a desert climate,” he says, “with the average daytime temperature in the summer almost identical to the Napa Valley. The evenings are cool,” providing the right contrast for developing grapes with fruity flavor and that retain acidity.
The growing area “is the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy and the same longitude as California,” Jeff says, putting Washington State wines “stylistically in between California and Bordeaux.”
Most people haven’t heard of Washington wines because the industry is very young. “It is only since the early 1980s that the premium wine industry was really developed by a few pioneer wine-makers, ail of which we have in our portfolio,” says Renshaw.
In March, some 50 restaurants in the Greater Tokyo region are offering a “Taste Washington” promotion, featuring Washington State wine by the glass. Participating restaurants include The Oak Door and Olives Tokyo in Roppongi Hills, Sohos in Omote Sando and the Cardenas Group with restaurants in several locations.
The two restaurant operators with the best wine sales per restaurant seat will win a VIP tour of Washington State’s wine country, so don’t be surprised if your sommelier pushes a glass from Leonetti Cellar.
“Washington State wines match up well with food,” Renshaw says, and the campaign gives dinners a chance to find out for themselves.
Orca is also hosting a series of dinners and wine parties featuring wine makers from L’Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon and Owen-Sullivan, some of the state’s wine-making pioneers. A Washington Wine Month Blow Out party is set for the Pink Cow in Harajuku, on Mar. 31.
Renshaw, 40, grew up in Washington in a family with a winery in Seattle that used grapes trucked in from the Columbia Valley. His background includes U.S. Navy time and a marriage in Japan, an MBA at Thunderbird, working for a trading company in Dubai and a stint in the financial industry with Morgan Stanley.
“The Washington wine market was pretty non-existent in Japan, so I thought there was an opportunity and a challenge for me,” Jeff says.
To get started, Renshaw and his small staff concentrated on restaurants. “Getting into the traditional Japanese distribution can be extraordinarily difficult” he said, “So we didn’t try.”
Orca now supplies Washington wine to a long list of restaurants, night spots, hotels and clubs including the New York Grill, Wolfgang Puck Bar 8c Grill, Seoul to Soul, Luxor, Lawry’s Prime Rib, Trading Places, Hotel Okura, the Tokyo American Club and Century Court.
It also sells and delivers through its Web site, www.orca-international.com and a small but growing number of retail stores.
The company handles 21 brands of Washington wines. For those interested in trying a taste, Renshaw suggests L’Ecole No. 41 merlot and Woodward Canyon chardonnay. Other labels include Columbia Crest, Pepper Bridge Winery, Snoqualmie Vineyards, Domaine Chateau Stc. Michelle and Eroica.
“The thing is not that we are better,” says Renshaw. “We’re different. I want people to realize that Washington wine is at the same level as Napa and as Bordeaux and at a better price.”
Online wine suppliers:
Orca International, specializes in Washington State wine, www.orca-international.com
Hotei Wines, California wines are a speciality www.hoteiwines.com
Pieroth Japan K.K., long-time seller of fine European and California wines, with branches throughout Japan, www.pieroth.jp
Village Cellars, noted for its Australian wines, located in the Kansai region. www.winebuzz.co.jp
Enoteca K.K., with stores in Tokyo www.enoteca.co.jp