By Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman
Do you like riesling?
If your answer was no, it’s probably because you don’t like sweet wines, and that’s your impression of riesling.
One group of riesling enthusiasts has set out to change that perception. In 2007, Dan Berger, Coke Roth and Jim Trezise got together at a wine event and began to talk about the problem with riesling.
“Consumers walk into a store,” said Berger, a wine writer in Santa Rosa, Calif. “They liked the last riesling they had, so they pick up a bottle, wondering if it’s dry or sweet. They can’t tell by looking at the label, so they put it back on the shelf.”
Wineries are well aware of the dilemma, especially the folks at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest producer of riesling in the world.
Berger, Roth and Trezise are longtime friends who have judged wine together for many years. The event they attended in 2007 was called the Riesling Rendezvous, which was sponsored by Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen, one of Germany’s top riesling producers.
So Berger, Roth and Trezise formed the International Riesling Foundation. Roth an attorney in Kennewick, is a former wine distributor and an international wine judge. Trezise, president of the IRF, represents the New York state wine and grape industry.
The trio then met with Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ CEO, to discuss the problem with riesling and develop a plan. In January 2008, the group held its first formal meeting, and by that October, the IRF had developed a riesling tasting scale, a graphic that indicates to consumers whether a riesling is dry, sweet or somewhere in between.
Pacific Rim Winemakers, which produces more than 100,000 cases of Washington riesling, was the first to use the IRF scale on its back label.
Today, the scale is catching on in a big way. We recently conducted a judging of Northwest rieslings, and of the 130 examples we tasted, 25 used the IRF scale on its back label. While that is less than 20 percent of the entries, those 25 wines represented nearly 1.5 million cases of wine, or 85 percent of the wine in our judging.
Trezise was thrilled to hear that number. He noted that 2.5 million cases of wine per year worldwide carry the IRF scale, so the majority are from Washington.
“We’re getting there,” he said.
Trezise said wineries from Washington, Oregon, New York, Germany, Alsace, Australia and New Zealand use the scale, with the largest number of producers coming from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In Washington, the biggest producers using the scale are Ste. Michelle, Hogue, Pacific Rim, Kiona and Mercer. In Oregon, Willamette Valley Vineyards is the largest riesling producer using the scale.
Trezise noted that South African wineries are not allowed to use it on their labels, so they are adding it to their marketing and point-of-sale materials instead.
The riesling scale is starting to make a difference, Trezise said. The IRF has conducted two surveys about consumer attitudes toward riesling. The first showed that wine drinkers perceive riesling as a sweet white wine, and most had no desire to try it. The second showed consumers a bottle with the riesling scale printed on the back label.
“People were inclined to try it when they saw the scale,” he said.
While the IRF owns the copyright on the scale, it costs wineries nothing to use it. In fact, the IRF often finds out after the fact when it appears on a label.
So the next time you are at the grocery store and are thinking about buying a bottle of riesling, look on the back label. Chances are you’ll get a better idea of what you’ll be drinking that night.
Learn more about the IRF and the riesling scale at www.drinkriesling.com.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest.