Wine

Kontos Cellars is making tracks in the wine industry with a new designated-driving initiative.

The Walla Walla winery has announced an offer intended to save lives and tasting fees.

Effective immediately, tasting fees will be waived for each person or group with a sober, designated driver present.

“We value our customers and want to do our part in keeping you and our roads safe,” the Saturday announcement on social media said. “Always drink responsibly, embrace spitting, stay nourished and hydrated, and never drink and drive.”

The concept received high praise from wine-lovers and even those who don’t taste but appreciate the gesture with about 520 “reactions” on Facebook and 56 shares as of this morning.

It is believed to be the first initiative of its kind in the local industry, said Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Chief Operating Officer Ashley Riggs.

Visitors to wineries, she said, are well supported with access to hire touring companies and designated drivers. A winery-driven incentive to have a strategy up front, though, is a different approach.

“The Kontos family is a proud example of a multigenerational family ensuring the safety of their guests and the larger community with a smart and approachable designated driver program,” Riggs said.

The concept also comes at a time when drunken driving arrests are generally declining overall in Walla Walla County and the municipalities that operate in it. In the last several years, the number of arrests have decreased, according to figures from the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs.

In 2013, arrests for driving under the influence from Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Department, College Place Police Department and Walla Walla Police Department totaled 120. That number dropped in 2014 to 95. It went down to 70 in 2015 before bouncing slightly back up to 75 in 2016, the last year for which numbers are available online.

At Kontos, partners and spouses Chris and Kelli Kontos were driven by social conscience as they considered the waived fee offer. The idea was further cemented as one of their children turned driving age and shares the road with the people served in tasting rooms.

“We love this community and can’t deny all of the good that wine brings to the Valley. We’re so proud to be a part of it,” Kelli Kontos said. “But we also can’t deny that it’s still an industry that produces and markets alcohol and that we do have a certain social responsibility.”

Although most wine tasting tends to be a low key, fun and educational activity with most tasters acting responsibly, different people respond to alcohol differently and sometimes unpredictably, she said.

“This topic keeps coming up,” Kelli Kontos said. “How do we do our part in keeping wine tasting a fun and safe activity? I can’t begin to express how strongly we feel about people utilizing one of the many driving companies available in the Valley, or even hitting up a friend or family member who owes them a favor. But, aside from random public service announcements, how do we actually inspire people to utilize these services?”

For the Kontoses, waiving the $10-per-person tasting fee is more than just a gesture.

The 2,800-case winery sells about 93 percent of its wines directly to customers through its wine club or its downtown tasting room at 10 N. Second Ave. Club members don’t typically pay tasting fees. Otherwise, though, the amount essentially covers sampling the lineup of wines at a tasting room before committing to a purchase.

“Wine is an investment to many, so it’s important that customers know what they are getting,” Kelli Kontos explained. “Free samples can get very expensive for wineries, so a small fee helps offset those costs.”

A guest at Kontos sampling through the lineup of Bordeaux-focused wines created by winemaker Cameron Kontos would typically recover the fee with a bottle purchase.

Kelli Kontos said she would love to see the designated driving concept catch on in the industry, although she recognizes young, small-production wineries may not have the means to waive the fees.

If a lot of people take Kontos up on the offer, the business stands to lose a small amount of revenue, she acknowledged.

“We want a lot of takers though,” she said. “We are serious about our message and can’t think of a better way to lose a little money.”

Image: Rodrigo Contreras Köbrich via Flickr; unedited

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.