We have reached a golden age, a time when wineries are going to greater lengths to reach out to us, to cater to our needs and to create personal experiences that can never be replicated.
They have become the destination. We have become the audience. And it’s only going to get better.
No longer can a winery simply set up a tasting bar, invite you in and offer samples. The stakes are so much higher now that the Pacific Northwest has reached a critical mass of wineries.
What does this mean? Here are some examples:
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-- Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser, Wash., hired one of Washington wine country’s most talented chefs to stage dinners and cooking demos for wine club members.
-- Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., is investing $5.5 million to remake its visitor center from simply being a tasting room to a wine-and-food experience.
-- Three neighboring wineries in Richland, Wash., — Bookwalter, Barnard Griffin and Tagaris — have full-time chefs, live music and more that have made them the go-to area of town for locals and visitors alike.
-- Several wineries along the shores of Lake Chelan provide food service, including Tsillan Cellars, Lake Chelan Winery, Vin du Lac, Karma Vineyards and Wapato Point Cellars.
-- Desert Wind Winery in Prosser has paired its spacious tasting room with a full-service restaurant and high-end guestrooms that overlook the Yakima River and the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center.
-- Burrowing Owl Estate Winery near Oliver, British Columbia, features a restaurant and an inn.
-- Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Wash., brings in big-name concerts to fill its 4,000-seat amphitheater over-looking the Columbia Gorge. It also has a “Reserve Room” — a special tasting room for wine club members that feature wines only they can purchase.
-- Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Northwest’s oldest and largest winery, treats its wine club members so well, it had to cap the club at 10,000 members — and there’s a waiting list to join.
-- Since launching in 2008, Westport Winery near Aberdeen, Wash., has created: a restaurant, bakery, sculpture garden, themed gardens, grape maze, 18-hole golf course, dog park, garden nursery, giant chess game and outdoor Scrabble game. Oh, and it’s building a 40-acre arboretum.
On top of these examples, hundreds of Northwest wineries offer plenty of perks for their wine club members in an effort to keep their happy customers just that much longer.
Willamette Valley Vineyards is turning its old tasting room into a room for its 4,700 wine club members — who are CEO Jim Bernau’s most vital customers.
“We need to provide more amenities to our devoted customers,” he said. “Wineries are looking for a wine-and-food experience because that’s the best way to experience wine. Look at New Zealand or Italy or the Okanagan Valley, where you find these incredible wine and culinary experiences.”
Kim Roberts, who owns Westport Winery with her husband, Blain, could not agree more.
“Our winery has to be something for all ages,” she said. “We have to have many areas of interest because people want to travel with their families, they want to travel with their dogs. We have to look outside the industry at this changing Northwest environment. People want to stay closer to home and need a reason to do that.”
Her job, she says, is to give customers that reason to come the first time — and return later. She and Blain learned that when they owned a dive operation in Hawaii. Not wanting to rely on just one revenue stream, they focused on training, charters and retail sales. When they opened Westport, they took the same approach.
Roberts is the first to admit that her ideas for keeping fans coming back can get a little out of control. For example, Westport now has 68 points of interest on its property. She finds her inspiration from outside the wine industry, noting places like Tillamook Creamery on the Oregon Coast and the Country Mercantile north of Pasco, Wash., as locations that draw consumers who become customers, customers who become fans and fans who become advocates.
“It used to be that people were going to the ocean and happened to see us on the way,” Roberts said. “Now we’re attracting more people who say they’re coming to see us and also will go to the beach.”
For Bernau and the rest of Oregon, creating experiences recently became easier, thanks to changes in state law. Until last year, it was against land-use law for wineries to provide any kind of food service, even though King Estate near Eugene had been doing it for years.
Once the law changed, Bernau made plans to completely remodel Willamette Valley Vineyards, a winery he launched in the early 1980s with the help of many small investors. Prior to the change in law, some wineries could have kitchens, and some could not, depending on various city and county laws. But with the new law, wineries now can have kitchens with on-staff or catering chefs — but they still cannot have restaurants.
“We can’t offer an open menu or open service,” Bernau said. “Under the law, we can use food in the presentation with the wine.”
And Bernau is doing it in a way that will make it center stage. In addition to the new kitchen, he is installing a pairing bar in the middle of his tasting room, where his chef will prepare food while customers observe and salivate.
For Bernau, the food aspect of the wine and culinary experience is more important to western Oregon wineries than just about anywhere else.
“We grow cool-climate, low-pH wines,” he said. “These aren’t back-porch quaffers. They are low-yield, high-cost wines. The people we’re attracting are serious wine consumers and foodies. The only way to properly showcase our wines is with food.”
Warm-climate wines such as those made from California and Washington grapes can tend to stand on their own, he said. But without food, Oregon Pinot Noirs are simply out of context.
In the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, Susan Bunnell has understood the importance of food and wine for several years. She and her husband, Ron, own Bunnell Family Cellar in the Vintners Village. Inside the winery is their 36-seat restaurant, called Wine O’Clock. They have a full-time staff and a wood-fired pizza oven. The food draws crowds from as far away as the Tri-Cities to the east and Yakima to the west.
“It’s a wonderful marketing device,” Bunnell said. “But it’s also a two-edged sword. People often think of us as a restaurant and not a winery. People will say to us, ‘These wines are great! Where can we get them? Which wines are yours?’ ”
Bunnell enjoys the publicity she receives from regional and national publications but laments that positive press tends to revolve around restaurants rather than wineries.
“We want the marketing, and we want people to be excited,” she said.
“But we don’t want them to lose track of what we’re really here for: to provide an incredible experience.”
If she could do it all over, Bunnell said she probably would create a bigger area that would have a wine bar feel to it and have less of a restaurant feel.
“It would have wine by the glass and food and less of a sit-down formal restaurant feel,” she said.
Down the freeway to the east, that is what Barnard Griffin has been able to accomplish. Rob Griffin and Deborah Barnard launched their eponymous winery in 1983 and built the the winery at their current location in the mid-1990s. For more than 15 years, Barnard Griffin was a typical winery, with a tasting room in the front and production in the back.
All that changed last year, when the winery went through a stunning transformation. By the time it was done, Barnard Griffin’s tasting room had doubled in size. To one side is a conference room that can easily hold meetings for 30. And to the other side is a gorgeous restaurant with original artwork on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Adjacent to it is a patio that effectively doubles the eatery’s seating for more than six months of the year. And beyond that is the DB Studio, a glass art gallery where Barnard creates artwork and teaches classes.
Today, the Barnard Griffin children have entered the family business, with Elise Jackson, 28, working in business and marketing and Megan Hughes, 25, making wine alongside her father. Both women grew up in and around the winery, and they both returned to the family business after graduating from Washington State University.
The holy grail for the wine industry has always been to try to appeal to the next generation of wine lovers. That could not be more true today with the elusive millennials who enjoy microbrews, cocktails, craft spirits and wine with equal enthusiasm.
The second generation of Barnard Griffins believes this new strategy for the family business just might have cracked the code a bit, partly because it’s the kind of scene they enjoy.
“We’re seeing more and more of our age coming in,” Elise Jackson said. “We all have jobs, so they could never make it into the tasting room. But now that we are open after hours, it makes us more accessible to our generation.”
Part of Barnard Griffin’s changes undoubtedly had to do with peer pressure. Less than 100 yards to the south, Bookwalter Winery has been evolving from a tasting room to a wine lounge for more than a decade. And just to the north, Tagaris Winery opened a few years ago as a full-sized, sit-down restaurant, complete with a stunning outdoor patio.
Thanks in large part to the next generation, Barnard Griffin has an altogether different vibe and atmosphere than its neighbors.
“With any business, you’re constantly having to look at how you market yourself, how you better yourself, how you make yourself relevant for the next 30 years,” Jackson said. “The way we chose to do that was to put food with our wine.”
That’s the exact atmosphere Jarrod and Ali Boyle are trying to create at Alexandria Nicole Cellars.
“The marriage between wine and food is a beautiful thing,” said Jarrod, who also runs the estate Destiny Ridge Vineyard and is the head winemaker. “We’re creating an experience, not just selling a product. That’s crucial because there are so many great wines out there.”
To accomplish this, the Boyles hired Frank Magaña, who owned Picazo 717 and a successful catering business. The Tacoma native moved across the Cascade Mountains in 2007 because he wanted to be in wine country, where he could work directly with small farmers and spotlight their produce in his cooking.
Each month, Magaña builds menus, then creates events around them. Sometimes, they are winemaker dinners for wine club members. Sometimes, they are cooking classes. Any of these can take place in the Prosser tasting room, at wine club members’ homes or even in the vineyard — where Magaña grows fruits, vegetables, peppers and herbs for his dishes.
Everyone at Alexandria Nicole understands why this program is so vital to the winery’s success.
“It is important to show customers our wine in a culinary context,” said Kristine Bono, winery evangelist. “We want to tell our story in a setting that elevates the wine.”
It’s all about creating experiences that cannot really be replicated. When we as wine lovers can participate in an event that we will hold in our minds for years, these wineries have succeeded.
That’s good for them — and even better for us.