SEATTLE – Taste Washington may have lost a bit of its charm from those early years at Seattle’s historic Paramount Theatre, but the festival celebrates its 16th birthday this weekend, having grown into the largest event of its kind in the United States.
The Washington State Wine Commission launched Taste Washington in 1998 with the concept of highlighting state wines and pairing them with many of the state’s top restaurants. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to see nattily attired folks with pen and paper taking notes and grading chefs on how well they did with the pairings.
On a marketing level, Jamie Peha has a keen perspective about Taste Washington and how much easier it is to sell Washington wines now. She spent 10 years working for the Washington Wine Commission, having been recruited from the famed Ray’s Boathouse in 1995. She now operates Peha Promotions and created the successful Seattle Wine & Food Experience, a Pacific Northwest event staged each February.
“The success of Taste Washington was to me the first time restaurants saw the wine industry taking a real interest in making headway on their wine lists,” Peha said in a recent email. “That event used to pair a winery with a restaurant with a two-prong purpose of food-wine pairing at the event and creating a relationship between winery and restaurant to get their wines on their list if they weren’t on there already. Couple that with the creation of the Washington Wine Month concept leading up to Taste Washington and now there is a platform for restaurants to get some buzz and recognition about their Washington-focused promotions and lists.”
It didn’t take long for Taste Washington to outgrow the Paramount, eventually settling in Sodo at what is now called the CenturyLink Field Events Center. And what began with a single afternoon on a Sunday in mid-April has expanded to two days of tasting with food pairings and demonstrations by renowned chefs. More than 200 wineries and 70 regional restaurants will be represented, and the price of admission ranges from $80 to $185. Each day before the public tasting, international wine experts will stage educational seminars for consumers.
Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau now produces Taste Washington, which draws more 4,000 consumers, trade and media members. It is billed as the nation’s largest single-region wine event. And the wine commission quickly turned the Taste Washington concept to other parts of the country, spreading the word of Washington wine and getting it into consumer’s glasses.
“Yes, its a different picture today than it was a decade ago,” Peha said. “In those early days, marketing of Washington wine — even locally — was very grassroots. Staff was small at the Washington Wine Commission, and we knew every winery on a more personal level. Marketing across the country was met with an uphill battle of the age-old, ‘You can grow grapes in Washington?’ However, slowly but surely, key influencers in media and in the trade in various cities started to believe and spread the word. “