Coronavirus outbreak prompts cancellation of Taste Washington

By on March 5, 2020
Taste Washington, a four-day festival in downtown Seattle, attracted a record attendance of 8,479 wine lovers in 2019. CenturyLink Field Event Center has been home to the two-day Grand Tasting for more than a decade. (Richard Duval Images)

SEATTLE — In the aftermath of Tuesday’s update by Gov. Jay Inslee on the coronavirus outbreak, the Washington State Wine Commission announced Thursday afternoon the cancellation of Taste Washington, a four-day festival in Seattle that last year attracted a record attendance of 8,479 wine lovers.

Taste Washington, staged each year in downtown Seattle since 1998, was scheduled to return to the CenturyLink Field Event Center on March 19-22.

“We sincerely regret to inform you that Taste Washington has been canceled this year due to the spread of COVID-19 in the greater Seattle area and across the U.S.,” the Washington State Wine Commission stated in a news release.

“This is extremely disappointing, and the first time in its history that Taste Washington has been canceled,” it added. “However, this decision had to be made to ensure the health and safety of our guests, our industry members and their families, as well as the integrity of the festival moving forward. All ticket holders will be given full refunds, and encouraged to attend next year.”

A longtime supporter of the state’s wine industry, Inslee said, “We are not making a request formally right now for events to be canceled, but people should be prepared for that possibility.”

Taste Washington is billed as the largest single-region wine and food event in the country and ranks among USA Today’s 10-Best Wine Festivals. Last year, the event recruited 240 Washington wineries and 70 Pacific Northwest restaurants. This would have marked the 23rd annual Taste Washington.

“Wow, I’m shocked and saddened about hearing the event got cancelled,” said Moya Dolsby, executive director for the Idaho Wine Commission and a former events manager for Washington State Wine Commission. “I understand the reasoning. I think about the economic impact it could have by canceling.”

Last year, there were 6,997 tickets sold for the two-day Grand Tasting. Cost for admission starts at $95, with a VIP pass granting early entry going for $165. The commission partners with Visit Seattle on the event, but a number of wineries already had backed from participating in Taste Washington this year as a precautionary move surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

The wine commission coordinates with Visit Seattle on Taste Washington. Even though its headquarters are in downtown Seattle, the wine commission is a state government agency funded primarily by its own industry via assessments on wine sales and grape sales. It was established by the state Legislature in 1987.

Announcement made during grapegrowers convention

Steve Warner is the President and CEO of the Washington State Wine Commission. (Photo courtesy of Washington State University Tri-Cities)

As of Thursday afternoon, there are 70 people in Washington who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. There have been 11 deaths, and most of the cases have been in King County, according to the state Department of Health.

Today’s announcement came two days after the industry received a rather somber outlook during a series of presentations by leaders at the annual Washington Winegrowers Association convention and trade show in Kennewick. Analysts pointed out that the Washington wine industry grew by just 2 percent, while producers across the Columbia River in Oregon saw sales grow by a whopping 12 percent.

There were many handshakes and a few hugs among attendees, but it was not uncommon for some to resort to an elbow bump, citing fears about the outbreak.

“Our priority now is to slow the spread of this dangerous virus,” said Inslee, who later added, “Even if you are the healthiest dude on the planet, the fact that you don’t go to work when you feel badly means you might save your grandmother.”

March is known as Taste Washington Wine Month, and the wine commission had scheduled an advertising campaign that was expected to result in 10 million impressions. More than 500 wineries, restaurants, hotels and retailers have planned special events and promotions to fuel  social media engagement. 

The wine commission will continue to roll out its month-long digital series featuring the voices of our industry, winemakers and grape growers, speaking to what makes Washington so unique. And the commission also unveiled a new logo, the first brand refresh since 2004.

Outbreak affects wine events across globe

Taste Washington fills the floor of the CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Today’s announcement came on the heels of major wine industry trade shows and festivals in Europe, Asia and Washington state being either postponed or canceled, including ProWein in Germany, Vinitaly and Vinexpo Hong Kong. France has prohibited indoor events with an expected attendance of 5,000.

On Tuesday, the Rotary Club of Des Moines/Normandy Park, a suburb of Seattle, announced the cancellation of its 16th annual Poverty Bay Wine Festival on March 7 “due to growing community health concerns,” according to its Facebook page. The St. Martin’s University Food and Wine Festival is scheduled for April 4 in Lacey, Wash.

In Oregon, the Savor Cannon Beach Wine & Culinary Festival is March 12-15, and the 27th annual McMinnville Wine & Food Classic is March 13-15 at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in the North Willamette Valley.

Jon Johnson, chair of the event committee for the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic, told Great Northwest Wine via email that his group is “definitely going forward with our event this year. Although the funds raised by MWFC for St. James School represent a significant part of its operating budget, and hundreds of vendors rely upon our event as a sales venue, public health and safety will be our priority.”

Guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will play a role during the Willamette Valley event as wine lovers walk near the historic Spruce Goose.

“We are continuing to monitor the coronavirus and will act responsibly,” Johnson said. “At this time, we feel there is minuscule risk for our event that will be taking place in less than 11 days. We are following the recommendations of the CDC, state and county health officials who are proactively screening for possible virus outbreaks. We have several indoor bathrooms that are accessible with hot water and soap for our patrons to wash their hands in a clean environment.”

Gary Hayes, executive director of the SavorNW Wine Awards and Savor Cannon Beach Wine & Culinary Festival, send via email, “I am surprised by the news of the Taste Washington cancellation, though I understand the concerns with an event that size, with the complex format of some of their specific events with multiple chefs and servers; and with the large number of event partners and sponsors involved.

“Comparably, our event is extremely small, uncomplicated and easy to implement safe practices,” Hayes continued. “At this time, we plan to go forward with Savor Cannon Beach as planned, though we are making changes in our food preparation, eliminating all self-service foods such as cheese boards in favor of individually prepared plates that are only handled by a few licensed food handlers who are sensitive to the current situation. We will continue to monitor the situation and heed the advice of county and state health officials if they have further recommendations, but none have been issued other than urging safe hygenic practices at this time.”

Dolsby, who helped orchestrate Taste Washington during her years with the Washington State Wine Commission, began selling tickets on Sunday for the 12th annual Savor Idaho consumer tasting June 14 in Boise. It’s a concept Dolsby brought to the Gem State and tailored after Taste Washington. Her festival sells out each year and serves as a critical piece to the commission’s operating budget.

“I can’t help but think about our outdoor event Savor Idaho in June,” she said. “Hopefully everything will pass over and die down.”

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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