Tourists pour in for wine events

Increasing events at wineries are becoming a bigger boost to the area's total economy.

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In one corner, next to a red 1906 Schacht Model K "High Wheeler" automobile, are mannequins adorned in 1940s daywear. A black dress with a terra cotta sash for her; a brown, double-breasted herring bone suit for him.

Outside on the patio is a 1928 Chevrolet sedan parked near a group of people enjoying a wine picnic. All around are even more cars and period clothing from the first half of the 20th century, with people milling about, looking, sipping glasses of wine, sampling from a food platter.

Then there's talk of rock, and benefit jazz and symphony performances on deck - while a version of "Whatever Lola Wants" from the 1955 musical "Damn Yankees" is piped through the room.

OK, so what's going on here? Is this a museum? Concert venue? Charitable organization? A winery?

Actually, this recent exhibit of antique cars and classic clothing at Waterbrook Winery makes it all of the above. It serves as an example of how the winery and others in the Valley are stretching to offer more extracurricular activities to draw tourists and local customers to stay ahead in the wine business. And the tourists they draw contribute heavily to Walla Walla County's total economy.

"It's about creating experience," said Ron Williams, Waterbrook tasting room manager. "You give that experience, and people will associate that product with it for the rest of their lives."

Witness Mary Ann Tobia, a retired Yakima school teacher who with one hand was fondling a 1940s-era terra cotta sash on a mannequin and holding a glass of Waterbrook's Sangiovese Rose in the other:

"I was just a kid in the 1940s," she says. "The detail [of the sash], it looks like something Edith Head designed for the movies."

Founded in 1984, Waterbrook is not the first winery in the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area to go beyond simply offering wine and related gift shop items out of its tasting room.

But since it was bought by Seattle-based Precept Brands in 2006, opened a 53,000-square-foot production facility and 5,000-square-foot visitor facility west of Walla Walla in 2008, it's taken offering events to broader heights on its larger grounds.

"It has to be different. It has to be surprising. And it has to be on a certain scale," said Williams. "For me, to get people to drive the 10 miles from Walla Walla, it has to be on a grander scale."

The recent cars and clothing exhibit got started when Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald Schacht - a member of the Walla Walla Historical Auto Club - asked Waterbrook if he could use the winery as a destination for a Fourth of July weekend gathering.

"They were willing and excited to have us," he said.

The judge, a distant relative of the founder of Cincinnati-based Schacht automobile and truck manufacturer, which operated from 1904 through 1937, said the rally drew 70 antique and vintage automobiles from as far away as Seattle, Portland, Boise and Salt Lake City. His wife, Margaret, who collects period clothing, and other members of the club enhanced the exhibit with examples of formal evening and daywear and accessories.

Coming in August will be a jazz festival to benefit Friends of Children of Walla Walla, and in September a "Wine Blowing Weekend" of one-of-a-kind glass art and glass-blowing demonstrations is being planned as a fundraiser for the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

Economic rippling

In the Valley, where many wine customers are the more well-heeled in metropolitan markets four to six hours away by car, drawing tourists becomes an increasingly innovative task as winery competition grows. Done well, it becomes a magnet with positive returns for the community's lodging, restaurant and retail sectors.

There are about 120 actively producing wineries in the Walla Walla Valley appellation, which includes parts of Oregon, said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. That's up from about 70 five years ago.

Statewide there are about 700 licensed wineries and 11 appellations, with the already outdoor tourist-popular Lake Chelan among the more recent.

"There are a lot of great wineries out there in the state and a lot of places to see and to go do things," Wollmuth said, adding that wineries that add events can tilt more traffic their way.

"It brings people to the Valley and many of them stay for extended visits," he said. "They don't taste wine for 12 hours a day; they shop, go to restaurants and stay in motels."

"People who buy wine spend more than people who don't," said Michael Davidson, president and chief executive of Tourism Walla Walla.

"It's clear wine is driving the train," he added. "We wouldn't have the number of restaurants, hotels and retail without the wine industry."

Nor would local governments be seeing as much in tax revenues - from dollars that are new to the Valley rather than being exchanged from one local pocket to another.

Since 2005, the Walla Walla area's tourism spending has more than doubled from about $35 million in 1991 to $87 million in 2009, according to a state Department of Commerce report. In 2009 the local tourism industry employed 1,260 people, earned about $25 million and generated $6.2 million in local and state taxes.

In a 2008 profile of tourism spending trends in Walla Walla County based on a local survey and posted on Tourism Walla Walla's website, the average visitor spent $280 locally, excluding any wine they might buy and transportation costs. People coming primarily for the wine experience, however, spent significantly more: $375, not counting transportation costs, plus an average of $210 in wine purchases.

The survey also indicated the typical visitor -- here primarily for the wine or otherwise -- dined at local restaurants an average of five times per trip.

The increase in the number of wineries also has served to increase the lodging industry, up from 236,000 room nights five years ago to a current 320,000, Davidson said. Room nights are based on the number of lodging units multiplied by 365, the number of days in a year.

Cultural bonus

The wine industry also is a factor in changes to the cultural landscape, to a point that is exceptional among small rural towns. The Walla Walla Symphony and three colleges in the vicinity have long served to bring cultural events and noted speakers to the area, but the growth of wineries has enhanced that with more private art shops and professional performances.

"The Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival and Shakespeare Walla Walla probably would not have come here without the wine industry," Davidson said.

Williams, as an example, points to Nano Lopez, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who now lives in Walla Walla and is internationally renown for his colorful bronze sculpture.

But one cultural aspect that has not changed -- despite increased competition - is the spirit of cooperation among local wineries, which have long helped each other out in growing and developing the Valley's industry.

In the upcoming Museum of Glass event, for example, Waterbrook is inviting a number of local wineries on and off Highway 12 west of Walla Walla to also pour their own wines.

"Philosophically, we have an obligation, obviously, to sell wine," Williams said. "But as a gateway winery it's kind of important we champion the Valley."

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