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Wine businesses consider how to handle public events amid virus fears

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Some winery operators are changing course on one of the biggest wine event weekends in Walla Walla amid growing concerns over the novel coronavirus COVID-19 .

Cayuse Vineyards has said it will cancel its Cayuse Private Release Weekend that draws oenophiles to Walla Walla for pickup of new vintages.

“It wasn’t an easy choice to make,” Cayuse Manager Trevor Dorland said Monday. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our guests, as well as our employees and, frankly, our community.”

The annual Cayuse event has been the foundation that helped build the first weekend of April into a large wine tasting and purchasing draw in the Walla Walla Valley.

Started in 2002, the event first began in a November time frame. Other local wineries also began to offer events at their tasting rooms, capitalizing on the visitor traffic.

About a decade ago, Cayuse moved its release weekend to April. Since then, the November time frame continues to draw visitors for what’s become known as Fall Release Weekend.

Separate from the change on the calendar, this is the first time the Cayuse release has been canceled completely, Dorland said.

The decision has prompted some wineries to follow suit.

Sleight of Hand Cellars, for instance, is canceling its annual party for wine club members that weekend.

“Traffic will be dramatically down since we share so many customers,” co-owner and winemaker Trey Busch said.

The change in plans comes after the cancellation of Taste Washington, the state’s premier wine and food festival that was scheduled for March 19-22 in Seattle.

Organizers posted that cancellation of the more than 20-year-old festival came when partners at the Washington State Wine Commission determined the wine industry could not move forward in light of COVID-19.

“Due to growing concerns across the U.S., we are unfortunately not able to execute Taste Washington at the quality level our attendees have come to expect,” according to a post on the event website.

In Walla Walla, the reach of cancellations is not known. Plans change daily, if not hourly, based on public health concerns, some pointed out.

Visit Walla Walla board Chairman Chris Garratt said the destination marketing organization will continue to “market aggressively, as scheduled, to our core drive markets to promote and encourage spring visitation to Walla Walla.”

“As we navigate the uncertain waters of the COVID-19 virus and its short- and long-term impacts on leisure, business and group travel to the Walla Walla Valley, now, more than ever, it is important for our industry to demonstrate solidarity and present a unified message with regard to travel to — and within — the Valley,” Garratt said this morning.

April wine visitation has a major impact on the tourism economy in restaurants and hotels, as well as wineries, he said.

Vvisitors who potentially might not want to fly could alternately drive into town, he said.

“From our perspective, it’s not cancelled,” he said. “Yes, the anchor winery is not participating. But we’re encouraging people to come. It’s a fantastic weekend to come to Walla Walla.”

Estimates on the numbers of people who come to town for the weekend were not available this morning. The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance was formulating a position.

The membership organization that represents wineries and vineyards in the region has worked to rebrand the April weekend as “Spring Kick-Off Weekend” to provide a more generic platform to the industry.

The idea was to allow wineries to promote their own events without the use of another winery’s brand name, said Liz Knapke, Wine Alliance marketing manager.

Meanwhile, some in the wine industry, such as Michael Corliss, said decisions about events and festivities will be made on a day-to-day basis, given the public health concerns.

Corliss said his wineries — Corliss and Tranche — host their festivities in May with Spring Release Weekend. Although that’s farther away than the Cayuse party, he said he is waiting to determine a course of action based on public health.

He said the range of activities often associated with tasting festivities — musical performances, cookouts, bonfires and parties — don’t work well with managing a serious health issue.

“It’s got everybody on edge,” he agreed.

He acknowledged the potential effect on the economy from canceling events. But hosting thousands of people from outside the area can be too great a risk on public health, he said.

“The economy can’t come before health issues,” he said.

“The sooner we can get through the health issue, the sooner the economy can rebound.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

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.

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