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Two years into a pilot program to make it easier for out-of-town visitors to buy local wine, tourism and winery officials in the say Washington’s Taste and Tote program is going so well they’re renewing it for another two years.

Yakima’s Gilbert Cellars tasting room manager Laura Rankin said being able to tell customers they can check a case of wine on an Alaska Airlines flight for free boosted business.

“A lot of people are encouraged to buy more wine then they would have originally,” she said.

Previously, visitors who flew in from other states either had to limit their purchase to what they could fit in their suitcase, pay expensive fees for express shipping — a requirement during the hotter summer months — or pay airline baggage fees.

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For some, shipping was not an option because they lived in states that prohibit shipments from the winery.

The free wine check-in has been a key offering of theTaste and Tote program, which has provided several other perks to visitors to the Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities and Walla Walla wine regions.

Taste and Tote will now extend into 2016 through the continued partnership of Washington Wine Country — a collaboration of Yakima Valley Tourism, the Tri-Cities Visitors and Convention Bureau and Tourism Walla Walla — Alaska Airlines and Hertz Rent-A-Car.

Since the inception of the program, passengers flying from the Yakima Air Terminal have checked in, on average, about 50 cases of wine a month, said John Cooper, president of Yakima Valley Tourism.

The Tri-Cities Airport has reported similar numbers, while passengers at Walla Walla Airport checked in about 100 cases a month.

One key change for the program going forward is that passengers will be required to be a member of Alaska Airlines’ frequent flier program to check-in wine for free. That should not be a big hiccup as many traveling on the airline are already members. And for the those who are not, the Taste and Tote website included a link to sign up, and program applications are easily accessible at the airports in Yakima, Pasco and Walla Walla, Cooper said.

Other perks, such as waived tasting fees by showing an Alaska Airlines boarding pass and discounts and waived drop-off fees from Hertz Rent-a-Car, also will continue.

The extension of the program is good news for local wineries.

“I talk about the program a lot and recommend it to everyone traveling, even people from Seattle,” said Meridith Vinansky, retail manager for Silver Lake Winery in Zillah, noting that Seattle travelers often fly to Yakima during the winter months.

Vinansky said she didn’t have statistics, but noticed that many of the visitors who took advantage of the program came from the Midwest. Now that the program has been extended, she hopes there will be more promotion.

“I feel as though people don’t know about the program as much as they should,” she said.

Rankin, of Gilbert Cellars, agreed, saying visitors often did not know about Taste and Tote until they visited the tasting room.

“I think if more people knew about it from the onset of travel, they would plan to purchase more wine,” she said.

Cooper said there will be increased promotion of the Taste and Tote program. The Washington Wine Country alliance collectively spends about $30,000 a year to market Taste and Tote. But now the tourism organizations will also step up promotions in their individual marketing campaigns.

For example, a banner of the program could be included in a magazine ad promoting the Yakima Valley.

Such promotion efforts are especially vital with other wine regions, including those in California and Oregon, which offer similar programs, he said.

Cooper’s goal is to see the number of cases of wine checked in at the Yakima airport to double.

“The program was designed to help raise the profile of this region as a destination outside our primary market of Washington (state),” Cooper said. “ … Having a partnership with a major air carrier like Alaska Airlines has helped us go a long way toward that goal.”

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