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Washington Wineries Pick Up the Tab

Stakeholders step in after tourism commission is eliminated

by Peter Mitham
red mountain winery vineyard
Washington's Red Mountain AVA was established in 2001. Photo by Peter Mitham
Seattle, Wash.—Summer has finally hit the Northwest, but closure of Washington’s state tourism office threatens to leave travel planning in limbo and wine-oriented destinations scrambling to raise their profiles. Best estimates put the number of visitors to Washington state wineries in excess of 2 million annually, thanks in part to efforts by the Washington State Wine Commission to highlight the climate and soils that distinguish the state’s wines.

Understanding those charms in the glass is one thing; luring travelers to visit wine country and experience the wines in situ is another proposition. First-hand experience can make all the difference to consumer loyalty. Wineries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have discovered this, and the state’s wine commission regularly hosts road trips to wine country so that buyers can taste wines in the vineyards where the grapes were grown.

Until June 30, bringing consumers into Washington was the job of the state’s tourism commission. Loss of the commission and its $1.8 million annual budget, which delivered a $15 billion return to the state in traveler spending, has left the private sector to pick up the tab.

The privately run Washington Tourism Alliance was recently established to market the state to visitors. Yesterday John Bookwalter, winemaker at 12,000-case Bookwalter Winery in Richland, Wash., and former chair of the Washington Wine Commission, and Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, were appointed to the board of 20 directors overseeing the not-for-profit WTA. The directors will hold their first meeting later this month.

“Unfortunately, the state just didn’t have the funding and the wherewithal to put a lot into tourism,” Bookwalter told Wines & Vines regarding the creation of the alliance. “I’m excited about the fact that this is essentially going into the hands of the stakeholders, that we’ll be able to move the needle more effectively than what the state did for all of our tourist interest —wine being a very important element.”

The group has raised approximately $300,000 toward a $15 million fund to produce visitor guides, maintain an online presence and provide other support for the state’s tourism operators.

Challenged by geography
Bookwalter noted that although the state is the second-largest wine in the United States, most of its wineries are located a four-hour drive east of Seattle and across the Cascade Mountains. “We have a challenge in front of us to drive tourism through the state, particularly from west to east,” he acknowledged.

He believes stakeholders will be better equipped and more motivated to do this. The state-run tourism commission, by contrast, had a mandate to draw equal attention to all parts of the state. “Was ‘wineries’ one of the elements within that draw of why people should come visit? Absolutely: That was part of the conversation, but I can’t say that it was an emphasis,” he said. “Will it be moving forward? I’ll do my part to make sure that we’re at least part of that conversation.”

North of Washington in the Canadian province British Columbia, wine tourism is concentrated in the Okanagan Valley. It brings close to $80 million to the local economy and is one of the pillars of the province’s tourism industry. But cuts to tourism budgets, including those of the Canadian Tourism Commission and the failure of Tourism BC (the province’s tourism agency), have also forced local destination marketing organizations to do more with private funding.

“I think individual properties and destinations are stretching their dollars further than they used to,” said Peter Lloyd-Jones, principal of Vancouver marketing agency Spectacular Ink (which counts the California Travel and Tourism Commission among its clients). “I don’t think the provinces are picking up the slack, which I think was partly the aim. I don’t think they have the budgets to pick up the slack where the Canadian Tourism Commission is withdrawing.”

This is odd in a year following the province’s successful hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Lloyd-Jones said. Challenges to the local industry are compounded by a strong Canadian dollar that makes the U.S.—including Washington state—a convenient travel alternative.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that rubber tire traffic and tourism trade is flowing very much in the U.S. direction versus in our direction,” Lloyd-Jones remarked earlier this year.

While traffic from Canada might console Washington wineries (even though there are strict limits on the amount of beverage alcohol Canadian visitors can take home), Oregon is also competing for tourist dollars.

The recent economic impact report for the Oregon Wine Board indicates that wine-related tourism generates revenues of $158.5 million for Oregon businesses. That doesn’t include tasting room sales, however. The actual value of wine tourism to the state is probably greater. The previous report, looking at 2005 statistics, pegged wine-related tourism revenues at $92 million.

The industry continues to pursue tourism dollars; the Oregon Wine Board includes a prominent button on its website inviting online visitors to, “Plan Your Oregon Wine Country Trip.”

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