Wild times in Walla Walla

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 15, 2012 

— For the record, Catie McIntyre Walker has never been to Newcastle. But if the owner of the Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman wine shop ever goes to the English city, I have little doubt she would be able to bring coal there -- and sell it.

Because despite being in the heart of the highest-density wine region in the Pacific Northwest, Walker manages a thriving business of selling Walla Walla wine to locals and tourists alike.

Walker was born and raised in Walla Walla. She moved to Portland for a while to work for a small athletic shoe company. The business had a tiny office, and she even roomed with the CEO. She loved selling, so she didn't mind working mostly out of her car.

That company, of course, was Nike.

In the late 1970s, she moved back home, got married, raised a family and never left. She began working for nonprofits and later for legal firms. As the wine industry matured around Walker, she became interested. She took classes through Walla Walla Community College's enology program to learn more about her new obsession.

By 2005, there were about 75 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley (it's since doubled), and Walker launched a blog, basically as a conduit for keeping her notes on the wines she was tasting. Though she was still working for a law firm, the pull of selling things once again tugged on her sleeve.

"I love retail," she said. "It's a way of sharing your love of something -- and putting a few coins in your pocket, as well."

By 2007, her blog -- wildwallawallawinewoman.com -- became so popular that she launched an online store.

"I was getting a lot of people writing to me about my blog and asking where I could buy the wine," she said.

So she started it as a side business while she worked her day job. But like many wine-related businesses, the hobby quickly grew into something much larger. Meanwhile, management changes at the law firm gave her the opportunity to exit and pursue her dream.

"People in the industry were asking for a wine shop," she said. "That's when I said, 'OK, I'm going to do this.' "

In 2010, she found a space at 19 N. Second Ave., just 50 feet from Spring Valley Vineyards' tasting room.

On the face, it seems a bit crazy to sell Walla Walla wines in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley. But she is, after all, a bit wild. One might think she would carry anything but Walla Walla wines to offer the locals something different. But if she did that, she wouldn't be nearly so successful.

Of the more than 600 wines she carries, most are from Walla Walla. Sure, she carries top wines from elsewhere in Washington, as well as Oregon Pinot Noirs, a huge selection of sparkling wines and bottles from France to Italy to Lebanon.

But the home-grown products are what sell. Here's why: Visitors can't get to every winery in the valley. In fact, even on a long weekend, it's hard to get to more than 15. So they stop by Walker's shop on their way out of town every Sunday morning and buy the wines they couldn't get to.

It makes perfect sense, and it keeps happening over and over. Leonetti Weekend (officially called Spring Release Weekend, it's the first full weekend in May -- and the only weekend Leonetti Cellar is open to its customers) is the largest wine-selling weekend in the valley each year. That goes for wineries as well as Walker's shop.

"It was really great," she said. "People kept coming in, especially Sunday morning when they were getting ready to leave town. They didn't get to all the wineries they wanted to. We're handy that way."

Walker continues to blog, and she has a strong presence on social media sites. In fact, she was nominated for a writing award at this summer's Wine Bloggers Conference. Though she didn't win, she was honored to be in the company of top wine bloggers around the world.

Interestingly, even though she started in the online world and has gained most of her notoriety and experience there, her brick-and-mortar store makes up 95 percent of her business. She has earmed a reputation for being able to acquire rare Walla Walla wines, and repeat customers are a big part of her business.

Since the change in liquor sales laws in Washington state on June 1, Walker has seen an increase in business. This, she believes, is because Walla Walla groceries have reduced their wine stock to make room for spirits. She doesn't mind.

Though she has expanded her offerings to include a few high-end beers, her focus and passion remain on local wine. And even with Spring Valley's tasting room just across the street, she has an easy time selling its wine to her customers.

"It happens all the time," she said with a chuckle. "Spring Valley is owned by Ste. Michelle, but it isn't open all the time. So tourists come in and buy a mixed case of Walla Walla wine from me."

Just like coal to Newcastle.

Andy Perdue is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.

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