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Yakima Restaurants Go Corkage-Free

Urban wineries and retailers pair with eateries to build business

by Jane Firstenfeld
Yakima wineries restaurants
Gilbert Cellars is both a winery tasting room and a restaurant on Yakima's Front Street "restaurant row." With the corkage-free program, diners can enjoy wines they've purchased from neighboring tasting venues.
Yakima, Wash. -- Seven Yakima wineries and wine tasting rooms have teamed with a majority of restaurants in the city's refurbished downtown to encourage diners to "bring their own." In return for referrals, 14 restaurants ranging from white-tablecloth to sports bars are waiving corkage fees for clients who've bought a bottle (or more) at participating tasting rooms.

Although the program started less than two weeks ago, both wine sellers and restaurants expressed elation with the results to date. It's a textbook example of direct-to-consumer marketing, the brainchild of Jar Arcand. The owner of Santiago's Mexican restaurant has been in business in downtown Yakima for 29 years and was active in the urban revitalization of recent years. He hoped to capitalize on the central city's new image by making downtown "an entertainment center."

"Last year I formulated the idea and started it as a pilot," Arcand told Wines & Vines. He started talking with tasting room workers, and in return for their recommendations, agreed to waive corkage if their customers brought in wines purchased locally that day. "What am I losing?" he asked. "I didn't buy the wine. What have I invested? I'm bringing in business: I'm not losing, I'm winning."

Tim Cook was easily persuaded. At Tim's Downtown Tasting Room, he represents Upland Estate, Naked Winery, Joel Tefft and four of his own wines. Cook spent four years at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., and recognized the concept as one that had worked in that East Bay enclave, where several restaurants extend a corkage-free policy to patrons of local wineries.

He started by hanging a poster for Santiago's in his tasting room, then enlisted management at Greystone Restaurant to join in. He considers the corkage-free concept another strong persuader in his direct-sales arsenal; another way to engage his guests. Once he knows which wines his visitors prefer, he can suggest the perfect restaurant to pair with it, and send them along with a bottle they can drink that night. (Diners bring a receipt with the bottle, attesting they have bought it that day.)

It took some coaxing to get all the restaurants on board, Cook acknowledged, but he feels they'll quickly see the benefits, "once they see they're not losing money, that people are coming in for dinner who wouldn't have otherwise. It's in the restaurants' best interests. They're fighting to get every guest they can, and we're ambassadors. It's co-existing; it's a win-win.

Yakima wineries restaurants
Kana is the only producing winery in downtown Yakima, and an enthusiastic participant in the corkage-free program.
Katherine Goodson, general manager at the Kana Winery tasting room, is equally enthusiastic. "We want to make sure that Yakima Valley holds a mark on wine tasting in the city. It's not about losing money, it's about gaining friendships," she said. "It's all over downtown," she said, adding, "I believe as this program blossoms, we'll get this going in the whole town."

Goodson noted that the Yakima Valley Convention and Visitor Bureau spearheaded a "First Fridays" program downtown four years ago. What started with a handful of musicians and, she recalled, "sometimes 15 people," has grown to embrace art galleries, live music of all genres and wine tastings, with hundreds of people in attendance.

She's in the process of designing a special card to give Kana tasters, showing locations of all the tasting rooms and participating restaurants. "At the end of the month, I'll pick them up from restaurants," to track the program's success. Goodson said she and her counterparts at other tasting rooms "talk to each other every day to see who's working." With this knowledge, she can refer her clients personally to the person at the next tasting stop.

Gilbert Cellars plays the referral game from both sides of the fence: The winery tasting room is licensed to serve food and its own wines, but not wines from other producers. Visitors who'd prefer more variety, however, can now bring in wines from program participants and have them poured corkage-free.

Sales and marketing manager Anders Zwartjes said he's still in the process of briefing his staff on the new program, and developing POS materials to support it. Asked about expanding the program to include more distant or rural tasting rooms, he said, "I think it will remain a downtown Yakima thing -- not that we wouldn't want to include other wineries." He said that the increasing dialogue among neighboring wineries and restaurants is a major component of the program.

Lisa Rembold, owner of upscale Café Melange, said she'd already forged some similar arrangements. "We send people to wineries; they send people to us." By waiving corkage ($10 is considered standard in Yakima and most of Washington state), "We hope maybe people will try another bottle."

She's already noted a slight upswing at her diminutive, storefront dinner house, which has an extensive list of Washington wines. "It's a really enticing thing," Rembold said. "We've had at least one (extra) couple a night," since the program was inaugurated.

"The other night, these people came in and ordered a bottle of Gilbert Cellars Malbec. We were sold out, so they walked over to Gilbert (a couple doors down), bought a bottle and brought it back." They didn't pay corkage, but they ordered appetizers and dessert.

Yakima wineries restaurants
The owner of Santiago's instigated the corkage-free program, hoping to entice more diners to his Mexican-style restaurant.
Looking ahead, Jar Arcand at Santiago's, which has an almost-exclusively Yakima Valley wine list of its own, said hopefully, "Now we have another marketing tool; now we can advertise this outside of Yakima."

Participating restaurants include Barrel House, Café Melange, Carousel French Cuisine, Depot Restaurant and Lounge, Golden Wheel, Greystone, Libby's, Santiago's Second Street Grill, Yakima Sports Center, Rusillo's Pizza, Tequila's, the Great American Grill and Tony's Steakhouse.

Winery tasting rooms and retailers include Cascade, Gilbert Cellars, Kana Winery, Tim's Downtown Tasting Room, Donitelia Winery, Plaza Socievole and Stems.
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