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Walla Walla Rebounds With New Wine Event

Local businesses help vintners create Celebrate Walla Walla, attracting 450

by Peter Mitham
celebrate walla walla
About 450 people attend Celebrate Walla Walla on Thursday night.
Walla Walla, Wash.—Celebrate Walla Walla’s launch Thursday marked the definitive rebound of the cross-border AVA’s wine industry from the woes of the 2008-09 recession. More than two years in the planning, Celebrate Walla Walla replaces Vintage Walla Walla, last held in 2011.

This year’s inaugural event attracted approximately 450 people (including a handful of hosted media from around the country). By Thursday, when Celebrate Walla Walla opened, attendees had bought more than 900 tickets for events that included seminars, tastings and dinners. Activities will continue through Saturday.

Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance executive director Duane Wollmuth, a former owner of Three Rivers Winery who took the helm of the alliance in 2011, kicked off the event Friday morning, saying the objective had been to leverage the bi-state viticultural area’s reputation and grow the previous event.

A tighter structure and collaborative partnerships were developed to bring this to pass.

“We decided to focus on a single variety—Cab this year, Syrah next year and Merlot the following year,” he said. “And, to make it a real learning opportunity, we decided to bring in guest winemakers from other leading regions around the world known for making those varieties.”

This year, winemakers and industry observers from Napa are giving attendees a chance to glean insights about what makes Walla Walla unique. Next year, the focus on Syrah will be amplified with perspectives from Australia, while representatives from the Rhône Valley will be tapped to weigh in on Merlot in 2015.

Wollmuth credited the executive of Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce with helping the wine alliance secure key financial support from both the city and the Port of Walla Walla for the event, among other sponsors.

The event had previously been financed largely by the wine alliance, but the new partners have given the event a stable footing that’s allowed it to hone its presentation.

Given the importance of wine tourism to Walla Walla—it is credited with the addition of close to 500 jobs across the AVA since 1999—the partners appreciate the $100 million contribution the valley’s approximately 130 wineries contribute to the local economy.

Vicky McClellan of Seven Hills Winery said a successful local event such as the newly revitalized Celebrate Walla Walla promises to have a larger direct impact than an event such as the much-publicized Wine Bloggers Conference, which came to Walla Walla in 2010 with the support of the Washington State Wine Institute.

While the wine bloggers’ conference helped raise the profile of the region, tracking the impact of the publicity the event garnered was difficult.

“The responses are something you’ll never be able to track because people are buying elsewhere,” McClellan told Wines & Vines.

Celebrate Walla Walla only brings in people who booking hotel rooms, dining out and becoming familiar with what the region has to offer, McClellan said. Those same visitors are consumers who will both buy local wine while they’re here but also—ideally—establish relationships with local wineries that will deliver an ongoing revenue stream for local vintners.

With new wines from local wineries being devised annually, and even a new sub-appellation in the offing—the “Rocks of Milton-Freewater”—local vintners have put the recession behind them.

With infusions of new capital from Precept Wines, which have invested in both the Canoe Ridge and Waterbrook wineries as well as Charles Smith, who has his own ambitious growth plans (see “Charles Smith Positioned for Growth”), Walla Walla vintners are focused on the future.

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