WALLA WALLA — Wine lovers looking for a calm, civilized way to ease into the holidays will be heading to the Walla Walla Valley this weekend for the annual Holiday Barrel Tasting event.
Holiday Barrel Tasting is one of two original event weekends meant to draw fans and customers to the southeastern Washington wine region, with the other being Spring Release Weekend the first weekend in May.
But while Spring Release is a crazy weekend with huge crowds, Holiday Barrel Tasting offers a much more relaxed vibe. The weather is part of the reason because some wine lovers from the west side of the Cascades are unwilling to cross Snoqualmie Pass as winter approaches. In addition, Walla Walla Valley winemakers are in a festive mood because harvest and fermentation are completed and Christmas is approaching.
“It’s a low-key, happy, end-of-harvest celebration,” said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and former co-owner of Three Rivers Winery. “The vintage is winding down as far as the hard work goes. And especially with this year’s extended harvest, everyone is wanting relaxation.”
As far as the economic impact of the weekend, it ranks either second or third, along with Spring Release and Fall Release weekends. In fact, with Fall Release Weekend being the first month of November, this provides wine lovers with an additional reason to cross the state.
Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, said the big events used to be make-or-break weekends for smaller producers, but that isn’t the case anymore because there are more events and consumers are more used to traveling to the Walla Walla Valley throughout the year.
“The love is spread around more than it used to be, ” he said.
With the two fall event weekends coming just a month apart, there’s more room for everyone who makes the effort of going to Walla Walla.
“People don’t like it when it’s so crowded,” Clubb said. “That’s challenging.”
Even though Holiday Barrel Tasting is not as big as Spring Release, it still draws a crowd. Wollmuth said the Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla is pretty well booked for this weekend, though other hotels and motels have rooms available. He also said reservations are a must at favorite restaurants.
Ryan Pennington of Northstar Winery south of downtown Walla Walla said this is an incredibly important weekend for the wineries.
“Anything that drives traffic to the winery helps us and all of our neighbors,” he told Great Northwest Wine.
Pennington said Northstar will be pouring its 2010 Premier Merlot – an $85 reserve-level, small-lot wine – for the first time.
“This will serve as an unofficial Premier release party,” he said.
The winery will be open and pouring Premier all three days of the long weekend, and it will stage a reception Friday for its wine club members.
Clubb said such special treatment is typical during Holiday Barrel Tasting, when wineries go out of their way to support the event.
The Walla Walla weekend pulls in a far-flung audience.
“We see a great percentage of people coming from outside of eastern Washington,” Pennington said. “We see a lot of people coming from Boise, Portland and Seattle.”
Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, at greatnorthwestwine.com, and also writes about wine for The Seattle Times and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin’s monthly Lifestyles magazine.