Wine grape growers to converge on Kennewick

February 7, 2011 

KENNEWICK -- Happen by the Three Rivers Convention Center this week and you might notice the parking lot is filled primarily with pickups.

That's because the center and adjacent Toyota Center will be loaded with farmers and winemakers for the annual Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention and trade show.

Vicky Scharlau, WAWGG's executive director, expects to exceed last year's record attendance of 1,300. And she said the trade show for the annual event has become so popular that she has a waiting list of three dozen companies that want to show their wares.

The convention also has been expanded to four full days.

"That's longer than we've ever gone," Scharlau said. "We get greater and greater demands from the industry for educational events."

All of this reflects the continued growth of Washington's wine industry, which set another record last fall with 160,000 tons of grapes crushed.

WAWGG has been held at the convention center for four years since relocating from Yakima, and it is contracted to stay at Three Rivers through 2015.

By that point, Scharlau wonders if the convention might outgrow wine country and need to move to Spokane or Seattle, far from the 40,000 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley.

This year's convention features 25 sessions and workshops, as well as lunch and dinner speakers. WAWGG works closely with Washington State University, which has been involved in nearly every aspect of the convention.

"Everybody within the WSU ranks is integral," Scharlau said. "We would not have the kind of sessions we do without WSU's support."

She said the Washington Wine Commission in Seattle also works closely with the grape growers, especially on sessions related to marketing.

This is Scharlau's 11th convention as WAWGG's executive director. Prior to that, she spent nine years with the Washington Apple Commission.

The popular convention draws more than just Washington grape growers and winemakers. Bob Ferguson, owner of Kettle Valley Winery in Naramata, British Columbia, has driven the six hours to attend for the past seven years.

"We used to go to Unified (Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento)," Ferguson said. "Now, we mostly go to the WAWGG conference because it's more practical and more related to our area. We learn way more, and the talks are more on topic than what we were getting at Unified."

Ferguson said at least a half-dozen members of B.C.'s burgeoning wine industry attend the WAWGG convention. It also draws members of Oregon's and Idaho's wine industries.

This year's convention will feature sessions in Spanish, and topics include training sessions for tasting room staff, emerging technology and even liquor distilling.

What is sure to be a hot topic both during sessions and in side conversations will be the freeze that occurred before Thanksgiving and caused crop damage throughout the Columbia Valley, especially in the Horse Heaven Hills.

"It will end up arising in a number of sessions," Scharlau said.

* On the net: www.wawgg.org.

* Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest, see www.winepressnw.com.

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