Developing tourism no simple task

Wine Press NorthwestJune 15, 2012 

My first visit to the Napa Valley, in the early 1970s, was a revelation: There was no traffic, no tourist mobs and no parking woes. But that was partly because there were few wineries, no public restrooms and, notably, no food infrastructure.

Hotels were almost nonexistent. The 1950s era El Bonita Motel (yes, I know that's grammatically incorrect) was the main place in the valley since it faced Main Street and was walking distance to a number of wineries. The number of bed-and-breakfasts had yet to explode, as they did in the 1980s.

Yet this was a destination location for a good reason: It was literally an hour's drive from San Francisco's population base (then more than 500,000), and less than an hour from East Bay's Oakland (then about 200,000).

And thus was born the day trip, an excursion that didn't have to begin too early (tasting rooms mainly opened at 10:30 or 11 a.m.). And it didn't last too long, as most places closed their doors well before 5 p.m. There was almost no charge for tasting wine; most wineries had parking, and there was the prospect of learning about the mystical process in which a mundane fruit (the grape) was transformed into a sublime liquid on which poets had conferred heroic status.

Moreover, some of the most attractive wine properties were up canyon roads into winding hillsides with its rustic wildlife, towering trees and amazing vistas.

Now look at what's happening -- or not -- in Washington wine country, the Columbia Valley and environs. Comparison to Northern California's regions (including Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and other rustic, forest-laden counties) might seem to be a natural. But there are several drawbacks to drawing any parallels.

The main one is proximity to a population base. Seattle is far enough away to make day-tripping a practical impossibility. And as a direct result of scant tourism (relative to Northern California), the infrastructure of the Columbia Valley today is simply too much like Napa in the 1970s -- not enough visitors to warrant adding lodging, and without a tourist base's demand for fine foods, it's difficult to attract fancy restaurants.

But even if such facilities were to be built, where would they go? One of the Columbia Valley's most obvious physical traits is its sheer size and the fact is that so many wineries are so far removed from one another. This isn't like Napa, with wineries stacked one after the other up and down Highway 29.

If you put a fine quality, upscale-ish eatery on Red Mountain, would there be enough business to keep the place open year-around? To be sure, such a place would attract those who wanted to dine after visiting wineries, but that means dining at 5:30 p.m. How many people would opt for that early a dinner hour? Or, alternatively, would a luncheon-oriented crowd be sufficient justification for putting in a fancy eatery? And how much dinner business would such a place do midweek, especially because of its location, remote as it would be from major lodging?

Such crucial questions have been thus far been answered with negatives sufficient to keep upscale purveyors away. You don't see any Ritz-Carltons or any other posh hostelries, complete with dining facilities, champing at the bit to build major edifices in Yakima, with its relatively static population of 90,000.

No one is going to put high-caliber hotels and restaurants into a wine region until that region is so overrun with tourists that it's clear the area would support such an infusion of capital.

Take Napa Valley as an example. To this day, no major hotel chain has a multistar restaurant in the valley itself because of the expense involved, though smaller hotel operations exist in Napa, south of the valley by 15 miles.

As for dining, for the longest time Taylor's Refresher, a popular drive-in, was Healdsburg's go-to dining place. The French Laundry, in Yountville, didn't get Thomas Keller as its owner/chef until 1994 -- 18 years after the 1976 Tasting of Paris that certified Napa as the top, world-class American counterpart to Bordeaux. Such is the time lag between worldwide recognition as a fine wine region and the infusion of capital sufficient to deal with the hospitality aspect of the business that makes it a major tourist destination.

And keep in mind that Napa is but an hour's drive from a million-plus population base from which to draw day-trip tourists -- a benefit the Columbia Valley lacks.

Moreover, Napa quickly showed in the 1990s that it could support more hotel and food facilities. In the last 20 years, there has been a boom in upscale lodging and eateries there.

The dining scene was fueled in part by a relatively well-to-do local population plus the proximity of the wineries that concentrates most restaurants between Yountville and Calistoga, an 18-mile drive along Highway 29, which passes some 100 wineries or winery driveways.

As enjoyable as is touring Columbia Valley today, it's not likely to expand as a tourist wine region until the substructure includes more attractions for tourists and locals alike.

DAN BERGER is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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