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Great Northwest Wine: Pandemic prompts innovation among regional wineries

Ashley McKenna of DeLille Cellars delivers a wine tote to a customer outside of the new Hollywood Station tasting room in Woodinville. (Richard Duval Images)
Ashley McKenna of DeLille Cellars delivers a wine tote to a customer outside of the new Hollywood Station tasting room in Woodinville. (Richard Duval Images)
By Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

In a normal world, Seattle’s CenturyLink Field Event Center would have been the setting for Taste Washington from March 21-22. Unfortunately, where more than 200 wineries and 7,000 wine lovers had hoped to meet now is being transformed into a field hospital because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this climate of social distancing, isolation and a crippled economy, the Northwest wine industry is struggling, but also adapting and innovating. There also are heartwarming stories.

On March 25, the Washington State Wine Commission launched the #SipGlocal campaign, a mashup of “global” and “local.” Led by Brett Rawson, social media manager for Washington State Wine, “The goal of this #SipGlocal movement is to close the social distance(ing), rally with and around #WAwine and inspire others near and far to support whatever local means to them.”

For example, there’s DeLille Cellars in Woodinville. Its CEO, Tom Dugan, decided to donate 50% of sales from the Heart label for DeLille’s flagship 2016 D2 Red Wine to Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund and LifeWire, which works to prevent domestic violence. Each $45 bottle sold generates a donation of $22.50.

This decorated wine went into barrel just before DeLille was named 2017 Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest magazine. The 2016 D2 won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and a double gold at the Jefferson Cup Invitational in Kansas City for winemaker Jason Gorski.

“Any purchase includes a future tasting for two when we can open again,” said Keri Tawney, director of marketing for DeLille, which barely cut the ribbon on its new showpiece facility at Hollywood Station before the pandemic changed how we interact.

The month of March cast every Northwest winery into uncharted waters, starting March 5 with the cancellation of Taste Washington. Initially, wineries chose to increase sanitation efforts in their tasting rooms and practice social distancing. However, that changed following the news that Ste. Michelle Wine Estates would close all of its West Coast tasting rooms and wineries to the public starting March 14.

The next day, Gov. Jay Inslee restricted public business across Washington state. Soon after, Cinder Wines near Boise attracted the attention of British wine critic Jancis Robinson by earning placement on her worldwide list of producers delivering to wine lovers in self-quarantine. Joe Schnerr, co-owner of Cinder, told Great Northwest Wine via email his staff rings the doorbell with gloves on, ensures that someone of legal age receives the shipment, and then darts back to their vehicle.

“I estimate that our team will have something like 1,700 orders to deliver within the Treasure Valley over the next few weeks,” said Schnerr, who is married to co-owner Melanie Krause. “Our club members are going to keep us going through this, so we have to take care of them!” Krause, an alum of Washington State University and Chateau Ste. Michelle, added, “It’s an honor to be on Jancis’s radar!”

The British Columbia Wine Institute’s first survey of its industry indicated 86% of wineries began to offer free shipping. In the same report came somber news that 69% of wineries noted their retail channels have postponed orders as the economy began to spiral. It prompted the creation of the BCWI’s Working Together program.

Winemakers on both sides of the border have launched virtual tastings via social media platforms. Washington producer Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas and others in the Northwest have used these online sessions as an educational tool and entertaining way to engage with consumers, particularly wine club members who already have access to the specific bottlings being discussed.

Last week, the collegial feel among Northwest wineries was particularly apparent around Red Mountain with its Virtual Vine & Wine Series. Staged at 5:30 p.m. each day, the rotation featured Purple Star Wines, Frichette Winery, Hedges Family Estate, Hightower Cellars and Tapteil Vineyard and Winery. Hashtags included #Exit96, #WAWINE and #CommunityNotCompetition.

Perhaps no industry linked to wine has suffered as much as restaurants and their employees. Several locations for the family-owned Anthony’s Restaurant Group, longtime supporters of the Washington wine industry, are offering takeout and bottle prices close to retail. The 2019 vintage of Thurston Wolfe Winery’s ever-popular PGV, a blend of pinot gris and viognier, sells at the Columbia Point restaurant in Richland for $18, just $3 above retail. And 100% of the gratuity goes to furloughed servers.

Any wine will show best when enjoyed with the correct type of fare, and the Willamette Valley Wineries Association website launched its #WVCommunity section that features more than two dozen recipes. “We asked our community members how they’re using their pantry creatively during quarantine, what immunity-boosting recipes they love and, of course, what wine pairings they recommend,” the group noted.

They include roast chicken courtesy of Big Table Farm, sangria pie via Sokol Blosser Winery and slow cooker lentils with ham from Lange Estate Winery. There’s even Arlyn Vineyard’s recipe for peanut butter and bacon dog treats.

And akin to the effort launched March 17 by Woodinville Wine Country, the #WVCommunity section includes a winery-by-winery listing of “Community Offers” from Willamette Valley Wineries Association members. It even shares Spotify playlists. Perhaps most thematic among those is by Newberg’s Raptor Ridge Winery. That playlist opens with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police.

To learn about promotions and ways to help wineries in other regions, visit the following sites:

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.

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