WALLA WALLA, Wash. — These days, so much in Walla Walla seems to turn into gold that it’s no surprise the community has rapidly built a following for its young Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine series.
Next week, Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — The World of Syrah will combine its own world-class winemakers with some from California and Australia to attract wine lovers throughout the country for a three-day festival beginning Thursday, June 19. The inaugural Celebrate event in 2013 spotlighted Cabernet Sauvignon.
“In terms of economic impact, basically the weekend is a sellout in terms of lodging and just about a sellout for everyone,” said Duane Wollmuth, executive director for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. “Last year, about 65 percent of the attendees — just over 300 — were from beyond the valley by more than 50 miles.”
And that’s a goal of the Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine series, to keep the region on the radar of tourists beyond early spring events such as “Leonetti Weekend” and the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.
“All the businesses did well last year, and the event is raising that level of awareness, but not just for that weekend,” Wollmuth said. “We’re trying to build the brand for the continued attention of tourists throughout the remainder of the year. And it’s been a great collaborative partnership with underwriting from the city, the county and the port district. And a number of private businesses have provided great sponsorship for the event.”
Ticket sales brisk, ahead of ’13 pace set by Cab
Cabernet Sauvignon is seemingly an easy sell for most of the 130 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. On the other hand, Syrah has lost some of its commercial appeal as a standalone wine in recent years. Once the pride of the Rhône Rangers, the variety has evolved into a key component to many proprietary blends in the Walla Walla Valley (see Tamarack Cellars’ Firehouse Red). However, that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the brunt of a few jokes within the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
But none of that has slowed interest in this year’s Celebrate, Wollmuth said.
“We’re running ahead of last year’s pace, so the word has definitely gotten out there about the event,” he said. “A lot of the folks from last year are returning, and like last year, many of them are visiting from around the U.S. and outside the state of Washington, so that’s good news for the valley.
“The media, as well, are finding us, and that was our intent — to create something different by bringing in guest winemakers and focusing on different varieties so that this is fresh and new. That gives the media a new story to write about.”
Wollmuth’s lineup of cult winemakers from the Walla Walla Valley would seem to be enough to make the celebration of Syrah a success among collectors in the Pacific Northwest. The three homegrown “guest” winemakers for his Friday afternoon centerpiece panel and discussion at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel are Anna Schafer of aMaurice Cellars, Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars and Matt Reynvaan of Reynvaan Family Vineyards.
However, the trio of Walla Walla Valley vintners will be joined by Gary Mills of Jamsheed Wines in Australia’s Yarra Valley, sommelier-turned-winemaker Pax Mahle of Wind Gap Wines in Sebastapol, Calif., and Kevin Sass of Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif.
“When we talk to people, it’s been a great learning experience for them to learn about the diversity of wines made in the valley,” Wollmuth said. “The focus will be on Syrah, so it will be a good opportunity for people to learn about Walla Walla and Syrah, especially being able to taste these alongside Syrahs from Australia, Sonoma and Paso to learn about the differences and be able to taste through the variety when it’s made from elsewhere in the world.”
Festival begins Thursday with outdoor consumer tasting
Celebrate — The World of Syrah begins with Vintage Pour, a two-hour consumer tasting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Garrison Creek Cellars involving wines from the 2007 vintage and earlier from more than 30 Walla Walla Valley wineries.
Friday begins at 8:30 a.m. with the World of Syrah kickoff at the PowerHouse Theater, which will feature presentations by Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits magazine and Whitman College geologist Kevin Pogue.
The star-studded winemaker panel runs 3:30-5:30 p.m., followed immediately with the Syrah and Rhône-style wine tasting and dinner at Whitman College’s Reid Center. The dinner will be catered by wine country chefs Andrae Bopp of Andrae’s Kitchen, Antonio Campolio of The Marc Restaurant & The Vineyard Lounge and Jim Cooley of Whitman College’s Café Bon Appetit.
Organizers left Saturday open for touring, and the evening formally concludes with nine winemaker dinners scheduled throughout the Walla Walla Valley. Each dinner features three to five winemakers.
Heather Bradshaw, communications and marketing manager for the wine alliance, said ticket sales are “way ahead of the pace of last year. We still have a few tickets available to some of the winemaker dinners, but we’re down to the last five tickets for the Vintage Pouring.”
Tickets are sold ala carte, and five activities are available. Wollmuth said last year averaged slightly more than 2.5 tickets sold per attendee.
Celebrate for 2015 will focus on Merlot
Even though Wollmuth and Bradshaw are making finishing touches to this year’s festival, work has begun on Celebrate for 2015, which will focus on Merlot. One of the early commitments is from Vincent Lignac of Chateau Gaudet, a Grand Cru producer in the Saint-Émilion region of Bordeaux.
“I think Merlot is an obvious choice,” Wollmuth said. “It’s one of the earliest red varieties that people went to. That and Cabernet are what the valley got started on, and I think Merlot has recovered from the Sideways experience.
“We’re cycling through the three varieties every three years,” he continued. “In 2016, it will be back to Cabernet. We may tweak the format a little bit, but we’ll continue to feature different winemakers panels from different regions and different terroirs. We’re hopeful the attention will continue to grow.”
It didn’t take long for Wollmuth to create and implement the Celebrate series, as this month also marks Wollmuth’s three-year anniversary with the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. The years he co-owned and managed Three Rivers Winery — leading up to its sale to Foley Family Wines — have served him well in his work for the alliance.
“I’ve been in the winery owner’s shoes, and there are a lot of challenges you don’t see on the surface — the compliance and taxation and winemaking and sales and labeling. So yeah, I’ve walked about 23 ½ miles in those shoes, and I’ve had to buy a few pairs of shoes,” he said with a chuckle.