April marks the third annual Walla Walla Valley wine month, and the weekend’s Spring Kick-Off helped launch the season.

Wineries showcased their new releases and looked forward to embracing the upcoming wine season without having to juggle and enforce state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions.

People are ready to get back to normal was the universal message heard from business owners and industry experts, and Spring Kick-Off Weekend symbolizes another step toward pre-pandemic living after two years of masking and social distancing.

The first full month of spring is when wineries start to accelerate activity by hosting live music, presenting new wines for sampling, releasing different flavors of red, white and rosé and promoting special dining experiences.

Wine month is presented by Walla Walla Valley Wine, a nonprofit organization that promotes the Walla Walla Valley wine industry. The agency selected April for wine month because of the return of greening and budding on the vines and because of how active the wine industry is this time of year.

April also falls between Taste Washington Wine Month in March and Oregon Wine Month in May.

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In a release, Robert Hansen, executive director of Walla Walla Valley Wines, said wine month is an exciting time to experience local wines, and interested wine enthusiasts can shop for wine in person and online, attend special events, or plan a tasting outing.

Post-pandemic precautions

According to Liz Knape of Walla Walla Valley Wine, there is a relief that many restrictions have been lifted, but the industry overall takes the health and safety of their guests and employees seriously.

Cleaning and sanitation practices will still be at a heightened level, and some establishments will encourage their staff to wear masks.

Some wineries are shifting to reservations only to manage guest flow to limit overcrowding.

Knape recommends tasters plan ahead and research the policies of the wineries they would like to visit before attending.

Seven Hills Tasting Room lead Yvonne Davis says safety is still first on their minds, and each winery is taking their own approach to opening post-pandemic.

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“Every place is different,” Davis said.” Some places will open right up; others will be more conservative at first. But as we come out of the slow season, more customers are going to show up, and that is great for everybody. Once the weather starts heating up, the customers start heating up too.”

2022 season

With the pandemic waning, Seven Hills winemaker Bobby Richards believes a new energy is coming into Walla Walla, and people are slowly discovering the quality of Walla Walla’s “world-class” wines.

“People are ready to come and experience the wines we have here in the Valley,” Richards said. “There is a lot of energy here, and I think the industry will really start taking off this year.”

According to Richards, what makes Walla Walla Valley wines, and Washington wines overall, so good can be attributed to how the growing season and the climate affects the grapes.

“Washington wines have the fruity structure of California wines, and the more acidic flavor of old-world or European wines. It is a perfect balance of both flavors.”

For L’Ecole No. 41 winery’s marketing manager Ben Dimitri, there are positive signs it will be a successful year for the whole industry, and he thinks people are ready to get out and start experiencing life again.

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“We are starting to see an uptick in visitations,” Dimitri said. “Prior to COVID, we had visitors from all over the country, and we are anticipating that again this year now that restrictions have eased.”

Dimitri said events sponsored by the Wine Alliance in both Portland and Seattle were sold out and thinks that is a strong indicator of the enthusiasm people have for the Walla Walla Valley wine experience.

“It’s just a matter of getting Walla Walla wines into people’s glasses,” Dimitri said. “The more we get our name out there, the more we will be recognized as a world-class wine region. We are still on the rise.”

That notoriety may be closer than the Walla Walla community realizes. Forbes announced the Walla Walla Valley as one of the 22 Best Places to Travel in 2022.

The Walla Walla Valley was also recently awarded Best Emerging Wine Region by Sunset Travel Awards publication.

And according to Knape, the Official Walla Walla Valley Wine Guide has seen an increase of requests over the last four weeks with 43% of those requests from first-time visitors.

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She says there is a “sheer and utter excitement” on the part of the local owners and operators as the overall sentiment is that this season will very successful.

The downtown wine district also continues to grow, adding several new tasting rooms including Echolands, Nocking Point Wines, Vital Wines, Moonbase and Result of a Crush.

A few new wineries have also emerged in the last year, including Yellowhawk Sparkling House, Explohr Wines, August Forest and Hoquetus.

As far as the future of the local wine industry goes, Knape said in a statement: “The Walla Walla Valley’s relentless pursuit of quality remains unharmed by the past two years of unique challenges. There will continue to be headwinds, as is the nature with agricultural products, but we are optimistic that the quality of wine and the culture of this community will continue to garner attention and piques interest in those wishing to make their mark in the wine world all while driving visitation, wine sales and growth for the industry and the Walla Walla Valley as a whole.”

For a list of events and local wineries, go to wallawalla.org for more information.