WALLA WALLA, Wash. – For the wine industry, this is the biggest weekend in the valley – and maybe the entire state.
Officially, it’s known as Spring Release Weekend, a moniker it has carried for more than a decade. For most longtime wine lovers and collectors, it’s called Leonetti Weekend because this is the one time each year that legendary Leonetti Cellar is open for its customers.
Gary Figgins, founder and winemaker emeritus for Leonetti, started releasing his wines this way in 1979, selling Riesling and Gewürztraminer. At the time, Leonetti was the only winery in the Walla Walla Valley. In 1981, his first Cabernet Sauvignon was released, and it earned such high regard, it landed on the cover of a national periodical.
“That really got us rolling,” Figgins told Great Northwest Wine.
Since then, the draw of wine lovers to the valley has been nothing short of phenomenal.
“It’s huge,” said Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars. “It’s our biggest weekend of the year.”
Dunham said the economic impact is felt throughout the valley, as every hotel is completely booked, and all restaurants are filled. Dunham, who worked at L’Ecole No. 41 before launching his winery in the mid-’90s, said he feels fortunate to be around the valley’s pioneers since he was a child and now being a part of one of the oldest wineries in the region.
Tasting fees change crowd, increase revenue
Each year, Dunham Cellars will attract 800-900 customers, even though more wineries open each year in Walla Walla. He said the only year he saw a drop in traffic was about a decade ago when the winery instituted a tasting fee.
“Dad and I were fighting going there forever because we didn’t like (tasting fees),” he said.
But the tasting fee discouraged those who were looking for a good time and a free glass of wine and instead drew patrons interested in the wines and the people behind them. Just as importantly, Dunham said, the winery made more money because of the tasting fee.
“We had 40 percent fewer people and 60 percent more revenue,” he said.
He said the smaller, higher-quality audience allows him to spend more time with each customer. He added that the tasting fee is waived for his wine club members.
Leonetti now open on Friday of Leonetti Weekend
Even though Leonetti has been the leader in bringing people to Walla Walla for the weekend, the Figgins family continues to innovate. Last year, Leonetti opened on Friday for the first time – for those customers who purchased the full allotment. These people get to taste all four Leonetti wines as well as free-range beef raised by Chris Figgins, Gary’s son and now the CEO and winemaker of Leonetti.
Leonetti will see 1,400 patrons come through the winery during the weekend, and each Figgins family member is situated throughout the winery to ensure each visitor is greeted as a friend and made to feel valuable and special.
A magical weekend for Sleight of Hand Cellars
South of town near the Oregon state line, Trey Busch is working hard to create an experience unlike any other. The owner of Sleight of Hand Cellars next door to Saviah Cellars brings in Professor Phelyx, a professional magician from Denver who also designed the winery’s labels. He will perform Saturday and Sunday in the tasting room, as well as at a Friday evening winemaker dinner and Saturday evening at the Powerhouse Theatre to a sold-out crowd of more than 300.
Busch used to operate a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla before purchasing 10 acres and building his winery south of town. He said the extra space has helped tremendously, but he also noticed that downtown customers tended to purchase bottles of wine rather than cases because parking is a bigger issue. His business has doubled since moving out of downtown.
It isn’t just the Walla Walla Valley weekend that benefits from the weekend. The effects of customers driving from Seattle, Bellevue and other west-side communities to Walla Walla ripple throughout Washington wine country. Some believe Leonetti Weekend might be the biggest single retail weekend for the state wine industry.
“It would be interesting to know how much money is spent on that weekend,” Figgins said.
Barbara Glover, executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, said Leonetti Weekend is known as “post barrel tasting weekend” in the Yakima Valley because it occurs the weekend after Spring Barrel Tasting Weekend.
“We definitely see an upturn in the Yakima Valley,” she said.