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Airlines Give Wineries a Lift

Oregon wines fly free at some Alaska Airlines airports; other programs offer complimentary in-flight tastings

by Peter Mitham
alaska airlines oregon promotion
An Alaska Airlines promotion allows passengers traveling from Walla Walla Regional Airport as well as Oregon’s Portland, Eugene, Medford and Redmond airports to check up to a case of Oregon wines for free through Nov. 20.
Portland, Ore.—Alaska Airlines’ pioneering work in promoting local wines has been embraced by Oregon and British Columbia, as the regions strive to reach a higher altitude in consumer consciousness.

Travelers have long been able to check up to a case of wine on flights from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., but the initiative was given new life with the addition of Walla Walla, Wash., in late 2011.

The program was soon extended to the Pasco and Yakima airports, allowing travelers with return tickets to check up to a case of wine for free. A voucher for complimentary tastings at select wineries was also possible upon presentation of an in-bound boarding pass.

Marianne Lindsey, a spokesperson for Seattle, Wash.-based Alaska Airlines, said passengers check an average of 30 cases of wine per week in each region offering the program.

The figures encouraged the Oregon Wine Board to sign on for the program this summer; it launched Sept. 10 and runs through Nov. 20. Approximately 250 wineries are participating in the program.

Passengers traveling from Oregon’s Portland, Eugene, Medford and Redmond airports are able to check up to a case of Oregon wines; the wines also will be allowed free passage from the Walla Walla, Wash., airport, which sits in the interstate Walla Walla Valley AVA.

Undertaken in conjunction with the Oregon Tourism Commission, the program aims to extend the reach of Oregon wine to those most likely to be repeat purchasers.

Linea Gagliano, manager, global communications with Travel Oregon, said a 2011 study by Suzanne Cook Consulting LLC of Washington, D.C., found that 60% of visitors to Oregon purchase Oregon artisan products once they return home, and more than 30% do so repeatedly.

“We wanted to make sure that people were able to bring small-batch wines home as well as widely distributed products,” Gagliano told Wines & Vines.

Charles Humble, director of communications and interactive marketing at the Oregon Wine Board, said it’s too early to tell what kind of impact the program is having on the Oregon wine industry, but the intention was that the program be a win for all involved.

“We’ve signed up over 250 wineries to participate in the program. We made certain commitments about our social media and website outreach,” he said. “Our job is to promote the program and get the most exposure possible from our wineries for Alaska.”

Humble said any measurement of the program’s impact won’t occur till after it wraps up Nov. 20.

Granting free carriage to local bottles isn’t the only way Alaska gives travelers a taste of Northwest wines. It also offers complimentary tastings of wines and microbrews on board flights, an idea Calgary, Alberta-based WestJet adopted for its new Encore flights throughout Western Canada this summer.

Working in conjunction with British Columbia’s Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, WestJet poured wines from a total of 17 wineries in July and August.

“We looked for a special way to promote our new destinations and routes,” said Marshall Wilmot, vice president of product and distribution for WestJet, said in a statement announcing the tasting initiative this summer. “Never before on a scheduled airline in Canada have the wines of British Columbia been featured in this manner, and we are proud to do so,” Wilmot said

Lori Pike-Raffan, public relations director for the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, said the program was successful enough that it was expanded and held over into September. There is also interest by WestJet in continuing it on an ongoing basis, an opportunity the society’s board will discuss at meetings this fall.

The popularity of the various airline programs underscore the importance of wine tourism to Northwest vintners.

A study released this week by the B.C. Wine Institute, Okanagan Wine Festivals Society and the Okanagan School of Business at Okanagan College estimated the overall economic impact of wine tourism to Okanagan wineries at $139 million CAD annually. Visitors to the Okanagan number 800,000 each year, spending an average of $97 CAD on wine per person each day.

Previous reports regarding the Washington state and Oregon industries pin the economic impact of wine tourism to these regions at $349.2 million and $158.5 million, respectively.

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