Building Wine Tourism in the Northwest

Oregon to have more rooms, but Walla Walla's worried, and some Eastern Washington wineries move tasting rooms west

by Peter Mitham
Allison Inn
The luxurious, 85-room Allison Inn promises alluring accommodations in Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country, giving high-rolling visitors a reason to linger when it opens later this year.
Newberg, Ore. -- Although it is popular with those in the know, Oregon wine country isn't known as an over-run destination. The highway running through the vinous heart of the Willamette Valley, past the towns of Newberg and Dundee toward the coast, has long been more of a drive-through rather than a road to wine country destinations.

Oregon Wine Board statistics indicate that wine tourism generated $92 million for state wineries in 2005, even while larger opportunities remain underdeveloped. Tourism infrastructure hasn't kept pace with the growth of local wineries, even as it stands to offer a competitive edge during the current tough economic times.

The opening later this year of the 85-room Allison Inn and Spa in Newberg promises change for a region where wine tourism has maintained a low profile even while the valley's Pinot Noir producers won center stage. Residents of McMinnville will also have a chance to vote May 19 on a plan to annex 30 acres of farmland adjacent to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum to permit a destination resort. Although associated with the museum, the project is touted as being a boost for local wineries that will benefit from an increase in overnight visitors.

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Rooms are unfilled, and restaurants have closed in Eastern Washington's Walla Walla, where almost a quarter of visitors are drawn primarily by winery tours and tasting.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Washington, Walla Walla was left wincing when five restaurants closed in the space of a few weeks at the end of January. While high gas prices last summer weren't the disaster for local wineries that many expected, Michael Davidson, president and CEO of Tourism Walla Walla will be "incredibly happy" this year if visitor numbers don't drop significantly, given the greater fiscal pressures vacationers are facing.

Visitor traffic was down about 16% in January and February from the same two months last year, but conversations with local hoteliers suggest May will be stronger than previous years.

Regarding the 2009 prospects, "I think if we end up (from) flat to 5% down, I think this entire community will be very, very happy," Davidson told Wines & Vines.

Wineries make up the prime draw for 24% of visitors who come to Walla Walla, according to a tourism association report. Any drop in numbers would make it harder for wineries and other local business to make a go of it, Davidson said, given that they're already competing for visitors' attention. Pointing to local hoteliers, he said they're offering 300,000 room nights per year, 60,000 more than were available in 2005.

"It's harder for those hotels to be profitable when there's so many more choices. Just like it is a challenge for the wineries to be profitable," Davidson said. "The wineries have had to become much more marketing savvy to make sure people come through their doors."

A 45-minute drive east of Walla Walla at the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, marketing director Megan Neer isn't expecting a drop in visitor traffic. "We really expect to see wine tourism increasing this summer," she told Wines & Vines, noting that there's a lot of motivation for people to stick close to home. When it comes to residents of Seattle, Spokane and Portland, that means a three-hour trip to wine country.

"I don't think we have anything to worry about," she said. Some wineries, however, aren't waiting to find out. Woodinville Wine Country executive director Cynthia Dasté said eight wineries from Eastern Washington have opened or plan to open tasting rooms in Woodinville by the end of June, bringing their products to the Seattle area rather than trying to attract visitors across the Cascade Mountains.

Dasté expects visitor numbers to continue trending upward toward 400,000 per year, especially now that cruise lines are arranging trips for passengers to local tasting rooms. Moreover, with consumers opting for more home entertaining rather than dining out, she said there's an extra incentive to discover what Woodinville wineries are offering.
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