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.