YAKIMA -- Shoppers couldn't look away.
The Yakima Grocery Outlet's wine and beer section was marked off with fake grape vines. The area was decorated with outdoor wicker chairs and water fountains to give a relaxing feel.
Emily Medeiros, a 55-year-old self-proclaimed wine student, poured samples and gave her tasting notes of each one.
As shoppers swirled wine in their glasses, they grazed over a spread of cheeses, chocolate and crackers.
Regular shoppers, intrigued by the chatter and laughter coming from the tasting area -- not to mention the free food -- made their way over.
The Yakima Grocery Outlet is one of more than 200 grocery stores statewide that have a new liquor license endorsement to hold wine and beer tastings.
Held late last month, the tasting was the first of several twice-monthly tastings that Yakima Grocery Outlet owners Dennis and Vicki Baker have planned for the store at 2109 S. First. St., where wine makes up only about 3.5 percent of its sales.
"(I hope) that will change with the ability to let our customers taste the wine," Dennis Baker said.
After finishing with his usual shopping, Evan Powell of Ellensburg stopped to taste. Afterward, the 22-year-old student stocked his cart with several bottles of his favorites from the tastings, including a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay.
And he was honest about the pinot noir he did not like.
"It tasted like it was dust mixed with wine," he said.
The eventual passage of a beer and wine tasting program for grocery stores started in 2008 when legislators passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, that allowed the Liquor Control Board to do a pilot program for 30 retailers statewide.
That program was completed in September 2009, and several months later it was expanded to include all grocery stores in a measure passed during the 2010 legislative session.
Several organizations lobbied for the program, including the Washington Wine Institute and the Washington Food Industry Association.
The endorsement requires the retailer to offer food with the tastings, provide samples that are 2 ounces or less and enclose an area so those under age 21 do not receive samples. Retailers also are required to notify the Liquor Control Board about upcoming tastings, though there's no requirement on their frequency.
Despite the requirements and the $200 annual fee to the state Liquor Control Board, many grocery stores believe it's a worthwhile investment.
A West Seattle grocery store was able to use the tastings as a way to promote its new catering offering, said Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, an Olympia-based organization that represents independent grocers statewide.
Metropolitan Market, which has locations throughout the Puget Sound area, increased the sales volume of one of its most expensive prime ribs after it paired meat samples with red wine tastings during the holiday season.
"Every one does it differently depending on where they're located and their clientele," Gee said.
With grocery stores offering similar products from aisle to aisle, the beer and wine department can help stores stand out from the competition.
Tastings provide additional excitement, said Jim Hertel, managing partner for Willard Bishop, a food retail consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill.
"It creates a buzz; it helps make the store a destination and not just a place to stop and shop," Hertel said.
Recent data compiled by Willard Bishop shows customers who shop for wine spend about $60 per grocery trip, nearly double that of nonwine buyers.
Dennis Baker, owner of the Yakima Grocery Outlet, estimates shoppers who buy wine on average spend $6 more per shopping trip, about 30 percent more than nonwine shoppers.
"They're more likely to buy cheese to go with the wine," he said. "They're looking for the whole package."
Wray's, which recently received endorsements for two of its three Yakima grocery stores, hopes tastings will give more exposure to its wine departments, which include local wines and beer that aren't sold at national-brand supermarkets, such as wines from smaller area wineries and microbreweries, said president Chris Brown.
It's also an opportunity for Wray's to offer tastings of wines in the $30 to $40 range; typically customers aren't willing to spend that much to try a new wine, he said.
In the long run, Brown hopes the tastings, which he wants to start next month, will boost wine and beer sales that now make up about 2.5 percent to 4 percent of its sales, depending on the store.
Wineries also see a benefit.
The grocery store provides a new venue for wineries to promote their offerings, said Barbara Glover, executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an organization of several dozen wineries and related businesses in the area.
"There is a lot of wine that is sold at a grocery store," she said.
At the Grocery Outlet tasting a few weeks ago, Marilyn and Terry Moore were among the first people to attend.
The husband and wife, both 70, returned to the Grocery Outlet for a second time after hearing about the tasting during their grocery trip earlier that day.
Typically, they try new wines by buying a couple of bottles a week.
Now with the new tastings, they won't have to.