Last June I wrote about a number of Walla Walla wineries contemplating opening tasting rooms in Woodinville. Since that time the list of wineries has greatly expanded and now includes wineries from throughout Washington State. Woodinville, already home to more than forty-five wineries and tasting rooms, has seen an additional ten facilities open recently in the area. Wineries that have opened tasting rooms include Airfield Estates, Alder Ridge, Cañon del Sol, Dusted Valley, Eaton Hill, Gifford Hirlinger, Goose Ridge, Isenhower, Otis Kenyon, and Tefft. Amavi, Pepper Bridge, and Zerba plan to open tasting rooms in the near future. More are sure to follow (the steady influx has been well documented by Woodinville Wine Update).
The expansion in the number of wineries and tasting rooms in Woodinville is sure to transform the area. In fact, it already has. The school house district, a short distance from Chateau Ste. Michelle, has been the most visibly changed. This area, which was previously anchored by Brian Carter Cellars with numerous other wineries and tasting rooms within a half-mile drive, now hosts over thirteen tasting rooms within a quarter mile stretch. Most of these facilities are centralized in three complexes.
As I originally wrote, the economics of opening a tasting room in Woodinville are obvious. The eastern part of the state is sparsely populated; the Seattle metropolitan area has a population of over four million. It is much easier for wineries to sell directly to their customer base several hundred miles closer to them.
While the economics of the decision are easy to understand, the effects will be far reaching and will take time to fully grasp. Perhaps the most significant issue is whether the area can sustain this number of wineries and tasting rooms. While I personally believe the area is nowhere near its limit, a more interesting question is whether the area can sustain these wineries and these tasting rooms? The current economic climate is already presenting significant challenges to many wineries. A recent blog post by Paul Gregutt detailed Isenhower Cellars’ deliberations about how to survive in today’s economy (Isenhower is one of the wineries to recently open a Woodinville tasting room). Wineries must not only continue to strive to make high quality, well-priced wines, they must also increasingly differentiate and market themselves successfully.
While most people I have spoken with (both on and off the record) have been welcoming of the wineries opening tasting rooms in to Woodinville, one wonders how long this can last as the influx continues. Additionally, people in some in areas, such as Walla Walla, have expressed concern about these tasting rooms diluting their own identity as a tourist destination.
Another significant concern for the area is traffic. Although the major portions of a $3.9 million dollar road project to deal with increased traffic flow were recently completed, the area still seems ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable congestion that will occur in the summer and on event weekends. While the new roundabouts are intended to ease traffic flow, it takes time for people to learn how to use them (for assistance, see an instructional video from the Washington State Department of Transportation here). While the locals will eventually get it, don’t expect tourists to. Parking also looks to be a significant issue. Last Friday night, parking lots in the school house district were full, and cars lined the streets. Add people searching for parking with confusion regarding roundabouts, and things look to get quite congested. The first real look at how this will play out will be this weekend’s Woodinville Passport.
For all the concerns these changes bring, there will be a number of positive effects as well. Competition is not always a bad thing. The quality bar for wineries and tasting rooms will continually be raised higher (as will the wine prices at some point once the economy recovers). Additionally, Seattle will increasingly be a destination for wine tourists. Many of these people can be expected to venture out further to the state’s other wine regions as well.
These issues, of course, have been faced by many wine regions before and will be faced by many again in the future. Napa Valley’s summer traffic, for instance, is legendary. Ultimately, it is all part of Washington’s continuing transformation into a major wine region.
Don't forget Obelisco Estate! I think they are opening their Woodinville tasting room sometime this summer…
Robert, good point! I forgot to mention Obelisco. Very nice wine too (check out my review from a few months back). Thanks for the comment.
Obelisco will open about June 1st up in the main warehouse area.
Many of the same thoughts have gone thru my head regarding the high concentration of TR in such a small radius of land. Passport this weekend will definitely be a test. The spaces in the Goose Ridge & Airfield parking lot are tight. I have a mid size SUV and I had to fold in my mirrors and shimmy out the door to get out of my car. My advice would be to park over in the schoolhouse parking lot and walk over to that complex and the one across the street where Dusted Valley is.
Melinda, thanks for the perspective on the parking spaces. I couldn't find a space in the lot so wound up on the street. Will be interesting to see how Passport goes.
Sounds like going to Woodinville to taste wines will soon be like going to the Mall of America to buy (insert consumer product here) – a real terroir experience!
Anon, definitely the vines always seem very far away in Woodinville. Thanks for the comment.
With the excitement of these tasting rooms opening up, a few questions: Tasting fees? Not for the Weekend event, but on a daily non-event day. Also, I would think that one of the main purposes in having a tasting room in Woodinville would be to promote tourism to the Yakima Valley or Walla Walla Valley wineries. I know that Airfield Estates has made that an important part of their tasting rooms experience. Not just for their winery, but for the vineyards, wineries, hotels, and other tourist attractions. I imagine the effect of the tasting rooms will be a boost for the wineries, not only in their sales in Woodinville, but with visits and purchases in their wineries on the eastside.
It remains to be seen if more tasting rooms draw more people or dilute the amount of people across more wineries. We have seen the dilution at Passport and St. Nick's. Fewer people across more wineries and this year ticket sales are down causing a drop in Passport visits. Per person sales are up because we have a better experience with the customers. Regular tasting room traffic is up.
The unknown is whether the marketing muscle of the bigger wineries will draw more people to Woodinville or not. This summer will be the test. Woodinville Wine Country is also going to be tested in the next year or so whether they can keep that organization relevant with many of the larger newcomers not interested in joining. I think Passport and St. Nick's might change dramatically over the next couple of years.
It still amazes me the amount of people that live in the Seattle area that still have no clue that all of this goes on in Woodinville. I think some type of scientific survey is in order to see how many people know about Woodinville as a wine destination…
Cityroute16, good question regarding tasting fees. I would expect each of these wineries to have fees given the number of people who will be coming through there. I don't know what the range of the fees will be (others please chime in if you do).
I definitely believe that, if properly done, these tasting rooms can be used to stimulate interest in traveling to the area the winery is physically located. This can be done in a number of ways, such as having people talk about the winery at the tasting room, showing pictures of the winery and the vineyards, putting out promotional material, etc. For these tasting rooms to really work (outside of just increasing sales) this will be essential as the goal is to connect people to the winery in some way.
Thanks for the comment.
Anon 10:03a, I agree that it will be interesting to see how the newcomers – especially the larger ones – play within the existing structures (or not). The next six to twelve months should tell the story. I also agree that there is a large opportunity out there at the moment for Woodinville to increase its brand awareness with people in the Seattle area. Especially with many of the new tasting rooms set up as destinations – as opposed to functional facilities that double as tasting rooms – this a great time to increase awareness. Thanks for the comment.
I think we may see saturation in Woodinville. Tasting/rooms with warehouse space are now hard to find, I hear, making logistics problematic for newer entrants. Meanwhile, SoDo on the rise? I haven't lurked here lately, and maybe you've posted about SoDo. Urban Enoteca has some serious boutique wineries signed up. So far as I know, about half the contemplated spaces are spoken for, and they are all east side wineries. Then there's the small but growing number of wineries operating in SoDo . . .