La Dolce Vita: Wineries boost economic development

My fascination with the impact the wine industry can have on the economic health of a community actually started when we stopped for lunch in Lewiston, Idaho on the way to Walla Walla, Washington last month.

The precipitous drop in elevation as we wound downward into the city reminded one of Osoyoos. Lewiston is known for its mild climate that allows golfers to enjoy the game year-round. But, as we wandered around downtown, searching for a place to have lunch, it was clear that Lewiston suffers from much the same problem as many small North American cities—the retail economy has migrated to malls, leaving empty storefronts to remind visitors that a thriving downtown is now a thing of the past.

A few hours later the contrast was apparent as we parked in downtown Walla Walla. The sidewalks were busy and I honestly don’t remember seeing an empty space in the city’s core. Downtown Walla Walla has a lively, energized feel to it. I learned in the few days we were there that this hasn’t always been the case. Only 15 or 20 years ago, I was told, Walla Walla’s downtown looked like Lewiston does today. Then the local wine industry began to take off and so did the downtown area.

What really happened? Well, the state of Washington has long been a leader in economic development, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it succeeded in translating what might have been a rural success story into an urban boost, too. In British Columbia, the location winery tasting rooms/retail outlets is largely restricted to the vineyard. In 2011 Walla Walla, visitors wander — on foot — the downtown core, free to drop into one of about 30 tasting rooms.

“Isn’t it expensive to pay downtown rents to operate a tasting room?” I asked one owner. No, I was told, because the tasting room is their only retail outlet. That particularly winery leases space and equipment at another winery, then sells its product through distributors and its city store. The once moribund downtown is alive with people — visitors and locals alike — thanks to officials who understand the value of wine tourism. Of course, the city kicked in once the winery business began to take hold — a revitalization project widened sidewalks and planted trees to make the area more pedestrian friendly.

The economic development story didn’t end there, though. On a Saturday afternoon we drove out to the airport to make a few more winery visits. The airport? Yep. It turns out that older airports often have lots of empty buildings that once housed ancillary businesses that have migrated to larger centres. Today, 20 wineries are located in the airport’s industrial park.

But wait, as the old TV commercials used to say. There’s more! The Port of Walla Walla has actually created an incubator program, constructing five purpose-built winery buildings, each complete with a concrete crush pad out back where grapes are pressed to release their juice. The complex is practical and cute as a button, too.

In one of the those incubators, we spoke with Kontos Cellars winemaker and part owner Cameron Kontos, who started the winery with his brother and sister-in-law, Chris and Kelli. Kontos explained that wineries in the incubator complex can stay a maximum of six years at the location, paying annually escalating rents that start at only about $1100 a month. The young brothers, whose father owns Fort Walla Walla Cellars (located downtown, of course) were able to get into the wine business because they only had to purchase their wine-making equipment ($150,000 estimate), buy grapes and rent the facility. Starting a winery from scratch — purchasing land, growing the grapes, building a facility and equipping it — is a multi-million dollar investment. The incubators help young folks get into the business with a relatively small investment. And, whether they sink or swim, the new businesses have to leave within six years to make room for another startup.

I often complain about the archaic B.C. laws — designed, apparently, to annoy everyone — that regulate wine and liquor in the province. Premier Christy Clark would do well to glance southward and see what Washington has done to cash in on this very important industry.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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