Kelsey Albro Itämeri had what seemed like the perfect plan for the opening of her winery and tasting room at the Airport District incubators.
She would pour her wines at Taste Washington’s two-day food and wine celebration in Seattle in March while simultaneously launching the website for Itä Wines. That would be followed upon returning to Walla Walla with the official opening of the Piper Avenue tasting room with one full weekend of operations before the annual crush of visitors — some possibly from Taste Washington — made its way to town for Spring Kick-Off Weekend’s wine tasting.
With pandemic cancellations, there was no Taste Washington or Spring Kick-Off Weekend. Itämeri opened for the first time last weekend as Walla Walla’s wine industry began emerging from closures.
With nonessential travel still restricted to visitors, she and others in the wine industry are exploring creative solutions to host consumers with new coronavirus-based regulations.
She first thought the layout of the relatively narrow 1,600-square-foot incubator building would be limiting with just 50% of capacity allowed for Walla Walla operators in the current phase of the governor’s Safe Start plan.
But narrow spaces have proven helpful in designating tasting areas 6 feet apart. Itä has repurposed a storage space in her building as a private tasting area and tapped into a spot that will be used for production during harvest for the time being as more tasting space.
The long corridor of Otis Kenyon Wine is also proving handy for distance tasting, General Manager Muriel Kenyon said.
The Walla Walla Main Street tasting room is nearly 70 feet long, but not even 11 feet wide. That provides enough space to set up tables against a wall while those stopping in for a quick purchase can creep along the opposite side with enough room to walk in, buy a bottle and walk out.
The efforts to open take twice the work for half the capacity, Kenyon said. But even with limited seating, the opening brings back a slice of activity that has been badly missed by those seeking Walla Walla’s famous wines.
It also comes just in time, it seems. For many wineries, consumers, including wine club members, went out of their way to support wineries with online purchases, Kenyon said.
“The second half of March was phenomenal for us. We had a better March than we normally do by a long shot,” she said. “Online sales were just out of control.”
April, she said, was marked by creative strategies to keep the momentum going. Many wineries engaged in live tastings through digital platforms. They offered discounts to club members. They bolstered lines of communication with consumers.
By the last half of May — a time when Walla Walla would normally be packed with wine tourists — Kenyon said online sales had slowed down.
Whether this will help restore what’s lost is anyone’s guess, she said. Some of the communities that typically feed visitors into tasting rooms have not yet moved to the next phase themselves.
One of the most commonly integrated ways to maintain capacity and distance has been the use of reservation systems that guarantee overflow won’t be a problem.
“You kind of have to walk that line,” she said. “We want people to come, we want them to visit. We also want people to be safe.”
The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance has tried to set up expectations for visitors in a social media campaign that lays out what wine tasting now looks like here.
“You have to be cognizant of your space. It’s wine tasting in the era of COVID,” said alliance Communications & Marketing Director Liz Knapke.
Knapke said the organization is starting to survey its members anonymously to get a sense of the economic impacts of the virus so far.
With vastly different levels of production and reach in sales and distribution, there’s no way to get a sense from individual wineries alone.
The alliance’s public outreach campaign — “Find Your Way Back to Walla Walla Valley Wine” — helps serve as a reminder of a few things, including that winery employees are required to wear masks, as well as limits on group sizes.
“We thought it was going to be important to educate the consumer on what to expect,” Knapke said.
At the Airport District, Itämeri’s is one of the local tasting rooms still accepting drop-ins, in addition to reservations.
She worked through the pandemic to build her online presence with Zoom tastings.
“The No. 1 word I would use to describe this time is ‘anxiety,’” she said.
That applies on multiple levels: How to sell the wine that was already made at a time of record unemployment and financial uncertainty for many consumers, plus how to reach people in the meantime to share the story of the winery and brand for the time when it could finally open.
Now with one weekend under her belt at the tasting room, she moves forward with faith.
“I think you just have to believe in the power of giving people a great experience,” she said.