When the Prosser Wine and Food Festival announced this winter that it was ending after 34 years, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia and melancholy.
Two decades ago, it was the first wine event I ever attended. My wife and I — recently married and knowing little about wine — thought it would be fun to go. It turned out to be much more.
It was there on the football field at Prosser High School where we fell in love with wine. It was an event that led me down a new path: a career in wine writing that has brought immeasurable levels of joy and gratitude.
I won’t try to dissect what happened to the Prosser Wine and Food Festival and why its attendance dropped to the point where it no longer made sense to continue. Perhaps it was the success of the Washington wine industry — after all, who needs a festival when you can visit dozens of tasting rooms in and around this Yakima Valley community?
More likely, however, the event merely continued without much change and, therefore, gave patrons fewer reasons to attend. I don't know for sure — honestly, I hadn’t gone for years — but there is a lesson to be learned here about how wine events must evolve to meet the needs and wants of wine lovers.
Perhaps the best example of a wine event that has changed and grown more successful throughout the course of three decades is the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival in British Columbia. It started out much like many wine festivals: a walk-around tasting with a few dozen wineries pouring a few of their best bottles.
But the Okanagan event was never built to stand still. Through the years, it added a wine competition, dinners, seminars and other fun opportunities. Today, the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival lasts 10 days and features more than 150 events, generating millions of dollars in tourism revenue and drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the interior of British Columbia during shoulder season. Not only that, but it also has given birth to festivals in spring and summer, as well as the winter IceWine Festival.
Even with all that success, it still changes every year.
In 2014, Woodinville Wine Country said farewell to what perhaps was its most successful event: Passport to Woodinville. End an event at the height of its popularity? Precisely. Finish on a high note, throw the winning touchdown to win the Super Bowl, then move on and create the next great thing. Don't just keep doing something because you’ve always done it. Keep inventing something new, fresh, interesting, exciting.
Which brings about the question: What is the next thing in wine events? Are big walk-around tastings done?
By the looks of Taste Washington, that answer would be “no.” But Taste Washington changes every year. It’s elastic. It’s evolving. It started as a one-evening affair and now has stretched to four days. Every year, it has a new twist, a different take.
But I do think that we as wine lovers are looking for something new, something a little different, something more intimate and educational. I think events that bring together winemakers and consumers in ways that benefit all will become more mainstream.
Serious wine lovers thrive on learning more about their favorite grape varieties, wines, wineries and winemakers. We want something closer to one-on-one time with those who produce their wine, not just a few seconds of conversation over thumping music and long lines while one is pouring a sip across a table at a wine festival. Instead, we want something a little more calm, slower paced, more hands-on.
Winemaker dinners have long been a staple of good-quality wine events, thanks to the collaborations between chefs and winemakers. I wonder if these are starting to wane a bit, too. Do they need to be reinvented? One of the best winemaker dinners I’ve attended included a blending session with the winemaker — and I got to take home a bottle of wine of my own creation.
If we want to get a good sense of who is figuring out what we as consumers want, we just need to look at the most successful wine clubs. They are staples for most wineries these days because they mean a steady stream of customers who like the wines enough to hand over their credit card numbers in advance.
But wine lovers don’t tend to stick around in wine clubs for too long. On average, it’s about 18 months before they move on to another winery. The key to success is keeping a member on for a long time.
So while some wine clubs exist merely to provide early access to favorite wines, the most successful clubs are here to entertain, surprise and fill us with delight. They do this with wine-club-exclusive wines, special events, release parties, dinners, concerts and vineyard tours.
The best and most memorable event I’ve ever attended in wine country was a harvest dinner for wine club members. It was in the middle of a vineyard, where a long table was set up under a tent for about 60 of us. It included dancers, opera singers and poets. The food and wines were amazing, but we didn’t really care because the setting was so remarkable, so magical, so unrepeatable.
We want wine events that we can talk about at the office on Monday, that we can brag about on Facebook as it happens.
Wine festivals must change or fade away. There isn't really another choice.
This story was originally published March 14, 2016 12:00 AM.