WALLA WALLA -- Could a little relief in wine-lovers' wallets lead to larger loads for local air travel?
Officials with the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance think so.
During the organization's annual meeting Monday, the alliance and Alaska Airlines announced a new program that waives certain fees for air travelers touring the Valley's wine country.
"Taste and Tote" is a new initiative that waives tasting fees at more than 70 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley for Alaska Airlines' passengers. The program also waives baggage handling fees on the first case of wine checked on flights headed out of Walla Walla.
In an announcement on the program, wine alliance Executive Director Duane Wollmuth said air travelers in the past were required to pay a $20 handling fee to transport a box of wine. Added to the tasting fees at wineries, the expense has often been blamed for either changing the way visitors choose to travel into the community or deterring them from buying more wine when they're here.
"For those of us working in the wine industry, we have heard time and again from visitors that they either traveled by car to the Valley, or did not buy wine when they flew, simply because they were not willing to pay the additional fee to transport wine home," Wollmuth said in the announcement. The most recent survey of winery patrons from Tourism Walla Walla showed 76 percent of guests had traveled to the area by private vehicle, and only 9 percent by air.
The program is expected to launch Dec. 1, just in time for Holiday Barrel Tasting weekend. Officials believe it could boost both wine sales and air travel.
Candice Payne, manager of sales and community marketing for Alaska, represented the airline at Monday's meeting at Walla Walla Community College's Center for Enology & Viticulture. Clint Ostler, manager of retail advertising and sponsorships for the airline, called the program a "win/win for everyone involved," in a prepared statement.
Wollmuth said only one other wine region in the country -- Sonoma County -- has a similar policy as "Taste and Totes." He said details about which wineries will waive tasting fees for Alaska passengers will be posted on the alliance's website at wallawallawine.com.