The annual don’t-miss extravaganza, scheduled for March 23-26 in Seattle, has become the largest single-region wine event of its kind in the world — and an inspiration to Idaho.
IT HAS BEEN 20 years since the first Taste Washington event. Since then, the annual showcase for the state wine and food scene has served as a metaphor for the growth and success of the nation’s No. 2 wine-producing state. And it has proved a winning template for another Pacific Northwest up-and-comer.
Taste Washington, now hailed as the largest single-region wine event of its kind in the world, started at the historic Paramount Theatre in Seattle as part of the World Vinifera Conference, an event that brought international wine luminaries to Seattle every other year. One could even describe the World Vinifera Conference as a scheme to bring the world of wine to the Northwest. And the scheme worked. California’s wine stars were soon gushing about Washington. And even as the conference faded away, the best parts of it were folded into the enduring Taste Washington.
That first year, 1,000 people packed the Paramount to taste wines from 50 wineries and about 25 restaurants. It was a see-and-be-seen affair, in which nobody would dare dress in anything casual — even at the apex of the grunge movement.
These were heady times for the feisty Washington wine industry. In 1997 — my first year as a professional wine writer — our state had perhaps 90 wineries. This was followed by a period of phenomenal growth, when a new winery was launching every two weeks. We were the equivalent of a gangly teenager with oversized shoes and high-water pants bursting through a growth spurt.
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Leading this was an unruly group of dreamers at the Washington State Wine Commission, led for several years by Steve Burns. One of his lieutenants, Jamie Peha, was in charge of putting together those early Taste Washington events. She now owns Peha Promotions in Seattle, and remains focused on food and wine. Another was Moya Shatz Dolsby, who now runs the Idaho Wine Commission. When Dolsby arrived in Boise, one of her first actions was to create Savor Idaho, an event remarkably similar to Taste Washington. It is a sold-out success each year and is helping propel the industry forward in Idaho. History repeats itself.
At the turn of the century, the Washington Wine Commission expanded Taste Washington into a traveling road show, going to Chicago, New York, even Tokyo. I attended one in Dallas. There were Taste Washington events in Spokane and in the Tri-Cities. They served their promotional purpose, then were phased out.
Visit Seattle now runs Taste Washington on behalf of the wine commission. The four-day extravaganza March 23-26 includes seminars and tastings that still are an echo of the World Vinifera Conference. The highlight is the two-day Grand Tasting at CenturyLink Field Event Center, where a $95 daily ticket buys unlimited samples of food and wine. It’s not as cozy as the Paramount, but I prefer the extra shoulder room. This year, 235 wineries will be pouring alongside 65 restaurants in a dramatic representation of our state’s bounty.