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Originally published Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 6:11 PM

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Retail Report

Wine lovers trek to Woodinville to sip

Wine tourism in Washington is far from dead. As restaurant and wine-shop sales slowed to a trickle, winemakers became increasingly dependent on direct sales to wine lovers. One result is that dozens of wineries and tasting rooms sprang up around Woodinville in the past couple of years. There are now more than 70.

Seattle Times business reporters

On a clear day, wine tasters on the patio of Brian Carter Cellars in Woodinville enjoy a stunning view of Mount Rainier to the south.

To the west, the scene is not so pretty.

Barbed-wire fencing surrounds a large acreage where Woodinville Village was supposed to open last year. The 750,000-square-foot development, designed as a wine-and-food hub featuring restaurants, wineries, shops, condos and a hotel, is on indefinite hold because of a lack of financing.

"It will happen; it's a matter of when," said Mike McClure, a partner at MJR Development in Kirkland, which also developed Madison Lofts in Seattle.

The recession also has stalled tourism-building plans in Eastern Washington, including a $100 million project near Yakima called The Vineyards and a luxury inn at Col Solare, a winery jointly owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates of Woodinville and the Antinori family of Italy.

But wine tourism in Washington is far from dead. As restaurant and wine-shop sales slowed to a trickle, winemakers became increasingly dependent on direct sales to wine lovers.

One result is that dozens of wineries and tasting rooms sprang up around Woodinville in the past couple of years. There are now more than 70.

Many are near three roundabouts that were meant to funnel traffic around Woodinville Village; others are farther north in a burgeoning warehouse district where rents are low and winemakers share fork lifts and bottling lines to save money.

Some Eastern Washington wineries also have opened tasting rooms on this side of the mountains.

"Since people aren't traveling on weekends, they need to come to where the population base is," said Cynthia Dasté, executive director of a nonprofit called Woodinville Wine Country.

The well-known Pepper Bridge Winery from Walla Walla opened a tasting room earlier this summer with its sibling, Amavi Cellars.

"Hopefully, this inspires people to go over there," said Stacy Luxich, the wineries' tasting- room manager in Woodinville.

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On the drive over, wine enthusiasts eventually will be able to stop in Prosser for wine classes and tastings at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center, which is being built by a nonprofit with state, federal and private funds.

It is awaiting a federal grant of $2 million to move ahead with a 15,000-square-foot building with a tasting room, kitchen and meeting classrooms, said Deb Heintz, executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association.

Even local limousine services picked up on the trend toward local wine tasting.

Mary Chacon, a chauffeur for Bayview Limousine Service for the past six years, sees more and more competition for trips to Woodinville.

Bayview set up a website this summer, www.SeattleWineTours.com, to promote that aspect of the business.

"A lot of customers are looking for wine tours and wouldn't think to look to a limousine service for that," said Bayview's business development manager, Joe Matthys. A four-hour tour in a Lincoln Town Car costs less than $300 and includes up to four wineries.

Chacon, who bought wine and wine accessories from Chateau Ste. Michelle's shop while waiting for customers doing a tasting this week, learns about the business.

She met a vineyard owner at 5 one morning to drive to Eastern Washington and spend a day working in the fields.

"I've done the Chateau tour five times," Chacon said. "Every time, I learn something new for the next customer."

Bob Beekman, an information-technology retiree who started Bon Vivant Wine Tours five years ago, said it would take a lot of cars to make good money in this business.

His entrepreneurial hopes were to structure his week, meet interesting people and "not go broke."

"This is not a way to make a living," Beekman said, and that was true before the recession. He offers private tours as well as six- to seven-hour small-group excursions to Woodinville that cost $85 a person plus tax.

Some local wine operators think the area should promote itself more.

"I've met people in Seattle who go to Walla Walla every year and have never been to Woodinville to taste wine," said Brennon Leighton, winemaker at Efeste Wines, which is located among roofers, machine shops and, increasingly, wineries in Woodinville's warehouse district.

This fall, the Washington Wine Commission will unveil its first campaign promoting Washington wines to the Seattle area.

The commission typically focuses its $600,000-plus marketing muscle on new markets and local events.

Part of the $100,000 ad campaign promotes tourism, said commission spokesman Ryan Pennington.

"The Northwest is the bread-and-butter market for the majority of the state's wineries to begin with, and any time there's a challenging market, it reinforces the need to shore up your base," he said.

Mike Stevens, managing partner of Brian Carter Cellars, said it's just as well that the winery's tasting room remains in the little yellow house where it has been since 2006.

The space includes a model of Woodinville Village, whose developer is its landlord. If the winery had opened there as planned last year, it would have a steep mortgage in a tough economy, Stevens said.

No one tasting wine on the outside deck seemed to mind the empty field next door.

"We have good wines down there, but this is good stuff," said Chris Feetham, who visited with his wife, Lauri, from San Jose, Calif.

Lauri even joined the Brian Carter Cellars wine club.

— Melissa Allison

Tidbits

Coinstar subsidiary Redbox said Thursday it will expand its $1-a-night movie-rental machines to CVS/pharmacy stores nationwide. It expects to install 700 machines by year's end and finish the rollout by the end of 2011. — AM

Icicle Seafoods of Bellingham told the state it plans to lay off 71 employees effective Oct. 18. Trident Seafoods has agreed to buy Icicle's surimi analog business in Bellingham. Terms of the deal were not disclosed; it is set to close Aug. 16. — MA

Francesca's Collections, a Houston-based women's apparel chain, opens its first Northwest store this weekend at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. It touts affordable prices aimed at a broad range of shoppers and exclusive deals with clothing manufacturers as well as emerging designers. — AM

Jones Soda named Mike Spear, its former interactive marketing head, as its new marketing director. Spear has been with Jones for almost eight years, during which he forged partnerships with Dark Horse Comics, the Seattle Seahawks, Fox Studios, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast and icanhascheezburger.com. He also combined the brand's Facebook fan pages to create one central hub with more than 470,000 followers. — MA

Bellevue-based Report Footwear, which is known for selling shoes through other retailers, recently opened a store of its own at Bellevue Square. The store sells women's shoes representing a broad array of styles and prices, from $40 for a pair of flats to $500 for over-the-knee boots. — AM

Retail Report appears Fridays. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com.

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Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to mallison@seattletimes.com or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

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