In the wine business, like in almost every business, location matters. Wineries spend a good deal of time thinking about where to hang their sign to make sure that they draw enough visitors to sustain the business. They also often spend a good deal of money for the right real estate. And with good reason. A proper location can be the difference between success and failure. What to do then when your winery location suddenly changes?
On Monday June 21, a new section of Highway 12 opened on the way in to Walla Walla. The new section is part of a multi-phase project funded by a variety of agencies and municipalities (see the complete list here). The goal of the project is to improve safety and increase commerce by widening U.S. Highway 12 to four lanes from the Snake River Bridge (US 12/SR 124 intersection) to the city of Walla Walla (see a list of project goals and progress here).
Long-timers such as L’Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon have long benefited from drive-by visitors arriving into town. More recently a number of other wineries have also opened up facilities on or off Highway 12 west of Walla Walla. These wineries include Bunchgrass, Reininger, Three Rivers, Skylite Cellars, Glencorrie, Long Shadows, Cougar Crest, and Waterbrook. The Highway 12 location, the main driving route from Seattle to Walla Walla, seemed perfect for attracting tourists and selling wine. Until the highway moved.
Since the most recent highway changes were completed late last month, the affected wineries – principally Skylite Cellars, Bunchgrass, Cougar Crest, Glencorrie, and Three Rivers – have been working to grapple with the changes. Wineries that were once right on the highway are now off the highway and out of the way. Worse, there is at present no signage. To compensate for the changes, the wineries plan to put signs on feeder roads and intersections of the old highway. However, there are apparently sign restrictions on the new highway itself as it is designated as a scenic highway.
The west side or ‘Vintage Loop’ wineries met last Tuesday to discuss the effects and how to deal with them. Larger, established wineries have seen a visitor drop-off of as much as thirty percent with some smaller wineries seeing a drop-off of sixty percent or more.
Ronn Coldiron at Glencorrie says, “We are suffering from two problems: first, we are new on the scene and second, we are on a section of the old highway which is temporarily a dead end.”
Cheryl Hodgins at Skylite Cellars is considerably more blunt in her assessment. “It sucks,” she says. “We are permanently cut off from traffic traveling west due to the round-a-bout. We have not had a single car pass by us in two weeks…Highway 12 that once went in front of us has been totally and permanently cut off.”
Tom Olander at Bunchgrass Winery is a bit more sanguine. “It is a bit early to gauge the full impact of the changes,” he says. “Once all the changes are made, and all the signage has been installed, we think this will be a very positive change for us. Visitors will be able to slow down and find our driveway. It will be safer to exit at all points.” Similarly, Kelly Tucker at Reininger Winery hopes that the changes will make it easier for people to get to Walla Walla and that they will come more frequently.
Whatever the long-term effects, the completion of the project in the midst of a recession and during the tourist season is sure to present some significant challenges for these wineries in the short-term. Stay tuned.