Thursday, May 03, 2007

Walla Walla The New Napa Valley?

The Napa Valley has St. Helena -- a charming and lovely town, yes, yet overrun with expensive designer shops, ultra-high-end restaurants, and chi-chi boutiques. It stopped being a functional town for local residents many years ago. The Walla Walla Valley has Walla Walla -- charming indeed, yet still down-home. Tourists still have to hunt a bit if they want to find the fancy and the frou-frou in Walla Walla. Yet both communities are capitals of their own wine regions. How, then, can we prevent Walla Walla from becoming a St. Helena -- or even a Napa? (Well, Napa Auto Parts stores in Walla Walla -- that's okay.)

Some local car bumpers have lately been pasted with a new sticker, "Don’t Bend Walla Walla." The reference is to a Bend, Oregon, company that has plans to build a destination-resort near Walla Walla city limits. But the resort is inevitable, considering the explosion Walla Walla has felt from wine tourism. Yet during a county planning meeting where a local wheat farmer opposed a vineyard owner building a new winery in an agriculture zone where his vineyard was located, the opposition commented, "I don’t want to see Walla Walla grow like Napa and become a wine Disneyland for adults." While I favored the proposed new winery, I thought to myself when I heard the comment, "Me neither. I don’t want to see the town that I was born and raised in, the town I want to retire in, turn into another Napa Valley."

But is Walla Walla, with its rural charm and blend of eccentric personalities, destined to become the new Napa or St. Helena? Is it inevitable?

My Uncle Larry dropped by last week. He had a wine magazine guide from Napa Valley and Sonoma -- he and my Aunt Barb just came back from touring these most famous of California's wine regions. They began their trip thinking they were going to have the ultimate new world wine experience. But they came back disappointed -- indeed, Barb and Larry hated their visit down south. Larry had imagined that he would be returning to the rustic charm of old wineries in Napa and Sonoma that he had seen decades ago when he was a young man, but, he said, now all those wineries he remembered are hidden behind fancy tourist-oriented facades. And the wine, he said, is mediocre wine. Barb and Larry drove on roads congested with tour buses filled with non-wine-buying-looky-lous and stretch-limos full of obnoxious tasting-room drunks. I had to admit that I've seen those kinds of limos here in Walla Walla. Are limos filled with happy-hour drunks endemic to all wine country?

A while ago someone asked a group of us who know wine fairly well what wineries to visit in Napa. Someone in the group mentioned all of the wineries in California housed in beautiful structures, built to create a kind of Disneyish wine-country ambiance. I wondered, But how are their wines? I finally asked the person who wanted the Napa recommendations, "Are you looking for beautiful architecture or are you looking for good wine?" The two can go together, of course -- several fine Walla Walla-area wineries are beautiful and they make superlative wine -- but that's not always the case. I suggested that when visiting any wine region, don't ignore the mom and pop garagistas. Maybe their wines haven't yet received the attention of Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator, but who cares? If the wine tastes wonderful, isn’t that enough? In my experience, the small, local unpretentious wineries are the places where the people are making wine for love, not image. And it's love -- plus good vineyards -- that produces the best wine, I think.

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, I love living in Washington wine country and I am thankful for the wineries and the associated economic growth they have brought to Walla Walla. Our town has a new vigor and excitement. But we have to learn from Napa, and by that I mean we can learn from Napa what to do and, especially, what NOT to do.

One thing I think we've already learned from Napa's and St. Helena's experience is that buses filled with tourists are not always a good thing. There's no guarantee these folks will spend the night in any of our local hostelries, and there's no guarantee, either, that a bus-load of people will result in any great additions to the local economy. In my experience, people who come to Walla Walla for the wine as couples or small families or even as singles tend to drop much more cash into our local wineries and businesses than tour groups do. In fact, in my seven years working in tasting rooms, I have yet to have a truly good experience with a tour group that arrived at the winery on a bus. Seriously, I mean that. I've sold groups a few bottles of wine, but not enough to make up for the time that tour groups require of tasting-room staff. Sometimes it feels like the winery is little more than a bathroom stop for such groups. Then there's the issue of tour groups that schedule a visit to a winery at a certain time, so the winery brings on extra tasting-room staff to handle the crowd -- and the group doesn't show. Yeppers, it's happened. I've heard some wineries in the Napa Valley are charging tour groups non-refundable reservation fees, and I think that's something that the more tourist-oriented Walla Walla wineries should consider.

But for me, working in a tasting room, nothing's more frustrating than when I'm serving a visitor who is serious about learning about the wines, and then a limo group of eight or 10 or 12 people bursts through the door. The intimate environment of the tasting room, which is properly a place of education, is immediately overwhelmed with noise and bother -- you'd be surprised how many people, when they arrive at a tasting room in a group, seem to require a loud conversation on their cellphone as they walk through the winery door.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of days when I envy those who visit wineries in a limo. I wish I could have my ass hauled around from winery to winery without a care in the world. But when I am working I am conscientious about the serious wine tourist who is here to experience the Walla Walla Valley and what it has to offer. The serious wine tourist wants to taste, savor and experience the wines. Getting hammered isn't on their agenda.

What I am hoping for Walla Walla is that we continue to grow and keep the state of Washington happy with our revenue taxes on wine, food and accommodations. But we need to be cautious about our growth. I think there are ways to encourage more wine tourism -- and there are ways not to. The experiences of California's famous wine regions, which have been in this game for a long time, provide us an opportunity to learn both.


Anonymous said...

Catie, I completely agree with you...about large groups doing less good than harm in the tasting room...about the over-commercialization of Napa...and somehow the fact that there's some correlation between those two.

Anonymous said...

The single thing that will keep Walla Walla from becoming St. Helena is that the nearest large metropolitan center is 4 and 1/2 hours away. Napa's
development into a cross between Carmel and Disneyland happened because it is a close driving distance to how many million people in the ever expanding SF Bay Area. Walla Walla should worry about becoming a Bend. Though if a Wine Train suddenly appears, we're in trouble.

Fourth Generation Californian living the expat life in WW.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Yes, I think you are absolutely correct about that single thing that will keep us from becoming a Napa.

Residing in a small corner of the state away from everything may have its perks afterall.

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