Road Trip Washington Wine aims to harvest higher profile, more sales

A tour of the state for deep-pocketed wine buyers brought several dozen to Walla Walla on Monday.

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A group of wine buyers samples wine grapes from the vine as well as bottled wine while on a tour of Figgins Estate Monday morning as part of a four-day trip throughout the state with the Washington Wine Commission. Monday, September 27, 2010

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Wine colored red leaves sprout up from petit verdot vines at Figgins Estate during a tour of the vineyard for wine buyers on a four-day state-wide tour of wineries and vineyards organized by the Washington Wine Commission. Monday, September 27, 2010

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Petit Verdot wine grapes from Figgins Estate vineyard soak in the morning sun weeks before they are planned to be harvested. Monday, September 27, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- A group of wine buyers with very deep pockets visited the area Monday as part of an annual tour aimed at increasing the state's profile with major purchasers.

The Washington Wine Commission brought 43 buyers from around the country, with more than $750 million of annual wine purchasing power as a group, to the area on a leg of Road Trip Washington Wine, which is in its third year.

The five-day trip also includes visits to Seattle, Tri-Cities, the Yakima Valley and Woodinville.

The program allows wine buyers from across the country to see vineyards and participate in winemaking activities in Washington. The group visited four vineyards and 11 wineries in the Walla Walla region.

"Road Trip Washington Wine is a very hands-on experience for our guests. In the vineyards, they'll be picking grapes and examining soil composition and various viticultural practices. In the wineries, they'll be sorting or crushing grapes and examining different fermentation techniques, blending and barrel aging practices, and other aspects of the winemaking process," said Ryan Pennington, the commission's senior communications manager.

The Walla Walla-area grape harvest is happening 10-14 days later than usual, lucky timing for the buyers, who can participate in harvest activities.

Four of the 43 guests are members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, professionals who are masters of the art, science and history of wine. There are only 105 court members in North America. Because the guests come from all over the U.S., they can spread the word about Washington wines when they return.

"When these buyers return home, they become ambassadors of Washington state wine, and they're better able to convey the quality, value, and diversity of Washington state wines to their customers," said Pennington.

The trip cost the commission about $2,000 per guest. Participants paid for their travel to Washington, then the commission covered everything else for the five-day tour. This price is comparable to other wine tours, Pennington said.

While Washington wine is popular among these wine buyers, Pennington sees the program as an opportunity to increase sales.

"The average percentage of wine purchases from Washington state among the buyers not from Washington currently stands at 2-3 percent. This indicates that there is significant room for growth with these high-profile accounts, which is one of the driving forces behind Road Trip Washington Wine. Among the buyers from Washington state, the average percentage of their purchases from Washington is about 40-45 percent, and we believe that there is room for growth in our local market, as well," Pennington said.

Pennington notes Washington wines have done well even during the poor economy.

"For the most part, Washington state has fared very well through the economic downturn. Washington state wines deliver extraordinary value at all price points, relative to our competition around the world," he said.

The wine buyers started their trip in Seattle.

"We did a tasting at the Space Needle, which was fantastic, and then flew out here this morning. It was definitely a good contrast to see the overcast, rainy Seattle and then come out here and see the sun and desert environment," said Patricia Ely, sommelier at Bourbon Steak, a restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Ely said she is excited to learn more about the Walla Walla region. She thinks that having the Columbia River nearby makes Walla Walla a wonderful spot.

"I am really still learning about this area. That is one of my reasons for coming out on this trip, to really be able to learn about all the different wonderful areas," said Ely.

While Road Trip Washington Wine is only in its third year, it is already very successful, Pennington said.

"In just three years, Road Trip Washington Wine has become phenomenally successful," he said. "In fact, we now have a waiting list of buyers who want to attend, and participating growers and winemakers have reported a jump in awareness of their brands and increases in sales, as a result of the program."

Joe Volpert can be reached at joevolpert@wwub.com.

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