In the coming months, a number of Walla Walla wineries are planning to open tasting rooms west of the Cascades in the Woodinville area. Wineries at some stage of considering this include Dusted Valley Vintners, Tertulia Cellars, Sleight of Hand Cellars, Trust Cellars, and Gifford Hirlinger.

The economics of opening up shop on the west side are obvious. Walla Walla, while an increasing tourist destination, is a town of 60,000 people and is situated four to five hours from a major city. Additionally, Walla Walla’s airport and passerby traffic is fairly small. This is all, of course, part of Walla Walla’s charm. Woodinville is already home to more than 40 wineries, and the Seattle metropolitan area has a population of over 4,000,000. Seattle also has a major airport and two other large cities within a couple hours drive. It is much easier for wineries to sell directly to their customer base several hundred miles closer to them.

While opening Woodinville tasting rooms is a new trend for Walla Walla wineries, it is not new for Woodinville. Several eastern Washington wineries already have tasting rooms in the area, including Alexandria Nicole, Gordon Brothers, and Bookwalter.

Opening tasting rooms in Woodinville should be a win for both the wineries and consumers. Wineries will have better access to their selling base, increased brand exposure, and increased direct sales. Wineries will also have better opportunity for wine shop tastings and winemaker dinners. Consumers will have increased opportunity to sample a broad array of wines that are stylistically quite different from those currently being made in Woodinville. This change should also provide some interesting cross-fertilization for Woodinville and Walla Walla winemakers.

On the downside, the Woodinville area is already tightly clustered with wineries and competition will no doubt increase. While this should benefit consumers as the focus on quality and price increases, this may be difficult for some wineries. Additional competition will no doubt add to the need for proper marketing and sales efforts, something many of the small wineries struggle with as they try to do it all themselves. More tasting rooms will also make the Woodinville area even more frenetic. Thus far, wineries in Woodinville are largely concentrated in two office parks. While convenient for consumers, it makes event weekends quite chaotic and the overall experience somewhat wanting. As the Woodinville area matures as a wine destination, I would expect many of the office park wineries to move on to better locations and facilities. Januik Winery is a recent graduate from the office parks. Mark Ryan is next in line, with a new facility opening later this year.

One of the challenges for wineries opening tasting rooms in Woodinville will be to maintain a quality staff that is able to discuss the wine and winery intelligently in both locations. Many wineries in Washington already struggle in this regard once they expand tasting room hours and staff beyond the winemaker. Properly staffing these tasting rooms will be critical to the wineries’ long-term success.

It is hard to say whether this change will increase, decrease, or have no effect on tourism to Walla Walla. Personally, I much prefer visiting the wineries closer to the vineyards and where the wines are being produced. However, I am fairly far to one side of the bell curve.

Let me know if you have heard of other wineries that are considering this change or any thoughts you have on this.