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Washington wines continue to pour it on for 20something crowd
SEATTLE — Will Camarda fits naturally into 20something The New Vintage, the Washington State Wine Commission and Visit Seattle event that continues to attract young wine consumers.
Camarda, 26, gave up a job in geology to join his father at Andrew Will, one of the state’s most respected wineries. And Nov. 23, he’ll once again be among more than 50 wineries to pour at the Seattle festival that attracts nearly 1,000 into the Fremont Studios — and sells out earlier each year.
“20something is a way to keep our brand out there and help spread the word about Washington wine to people my age,” said the young assistant winemaker. “I’ve been pouring there for three years, and it’s been fun for me, too.”
Laura Rankin, 28, tasting room manager at Gilbert Cellars in Yakima, will bring several teammates to help pour at 20something. There’s no standing behind a table waiting for people, so Rankin will join the other wineries in walking among the party-goers to provide tastes and spread the word about Washington wine.
“Taking the table away makes it more intimate and more of a casual environment,” Rankin said. “Marketing is all about word of mouth these days, and we have to be able to start the conversation with millennials.”
In the case of Gilbert Cellars, 20something offers Rankin the chance to share the family’s history of five generations in Yakima Valley agriculture. And Gilbert Cellars will be joined by several other family-owned wineries in the eastern Washington making the drive over snowy Snoqualmie Pass to be a part of 20something.
“More of us are sitting down and talking with others in the valley after the event,” Rankin said. “It’s important for us to participate every year because this is the signature event promoting Washington wine to the next generation.”
Camarda graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in geology and landed a job in his field, but he chose to follow his famous father, Chris, who named the winery after Will and Will’s cousin. Andrew Will has grown into a 6,500-case cult winery with a reputation that sails well beyond the shores of Vashon Island.
“I think it’s a cool event that has the right things going for it,” Camarda said. “There is a good range of wines there, and to see L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon showing up — some of those higher-end wineries — that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s an event that makes it really easy for you to go up and be able to taste those wines and meet some of the winemakers who have helped make Washington famous.”
20something also casts a spotlight on some of Seattle’s up-and-coming wine professionals, including Tony Berkau, a sales representative for Cavatappi Distribution in Seattle. His role that night will be to offer education and advice to attendees.
“Those of us in the trade all know each other and realize we have an opportunity to help each other by taking advantage of events like 20something,” Berkau said. “The biggest thing is getting the exposure for wines and showing people that wine can be approachable, unpretentious and comfortable for the younger generation.”
Ironically, Camarda said wine can overwhelm him on some levels.
“When I hang out with my friends, people are drinking more wine, but we still don’t want to spend more than $12 or $15 dollars for a bottle of wine,” Camarda said. “And there are so many wines out there on the market. You go to the grocery store and it’s very intimidating.”
Young wine professionals see need to educate peers
“This year will be my second year volunteering for 20something,” said Merfeld, whose father, David, makes the famous Northstar Merlot for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “Depending on who you talk to, the wine culture can have a uppity stigma about it and events like this challenge people’s perception of what the culture is all about — educating yourself, appreciating the craft and delighting your senses.”
It’s important for everyone in the wine industry to realize that wine drinkers in this country don’t easily adopt wine as their drink of choice, Berkau said.
“There is a sea of product out there, and it is very, very easy to overlook wine,” Berkau said. “Sometimes they can’t justify spending $15 to $40 on a bottle of wine, not when you can get a bottle of cheap vodka for $10 or a case of beer for $12.
“But it’s important for people to know that wine is an art form — an expression of the winemaker and the region — and that there’s a romance behind it,” Berkau continued. “We’re trying to get that message across and trickle in some knowledge.”
20something concept started in 2007
Those were all reasons why Moya Shatz Dolsby — now executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission — and Madeleine Dow, now with Charles Smith Wines, created 20something while both were at the Washington State Wine Commission.
They launched it in spring 2007 as a spinoff of Taste Washington, but it soon outgrew its early home at The W Hotel and has thrived as a fall event. The commission now partners on the event with Visit Seattle, a collaboration that’s helped grow Taste Washington into one of the country’s largest wine festivals of its kind.
“People make a night out of it,” said Erica Waliser, communications manager for the Washington State Wine Commission. “Guys wear a blazer and tie, and girls wear a dress and get their hair done. It’s more of a dress-up than some wine events. Some people go all out, get a town car and spend the night at a hotel downtown.”
There’s plenty of food and entertainment available during the four hours — including Las Veags DJ Tina T, a Seattle native — but it’s important to the wineries that these 20somethings leave feeling more educated, too.
“It’s dark, there’s the music and a bunch of people with bottles of wine in their hands, so it’s easy to get sidetracked,” Camarda said. “And a lot of times, people will come up to you, ask you for a pour and then just walk away. It can be hard to do much one-on-one education, but sometimes it’s just a matter of making that initial connection and getting your foot in the door. I know that people do want to learn more about wine, and it’s cool when people say they recognize our wine.”
Learning when to provide the education can be tricky, though, for the volunteering sommeliers.
“We’re hoping to create that space where people can approach us rather than having us approach them when they are wanting to have fun with their friends,” Berkau said. “In the past, there were times when a somm would go up to a group of people and get brushed off — and understandably so.”
Berkau and some of his colleagues have created some new concepts to better engage and educate guests later this month.
“We put our minds together for some pretty cool ideas which we hope will be well-received among the crowd and allow us to be more interactive,” he said. “If nothing else, it will still be a good party.”
Visit Seattle and the Washington State Wine Commission also encourage responsibility by partnering with a number of Seattle hotels to create lodging packages surrounding 20something because most of the patrons aren’t ready to stop when the lights get turned up at 10 p.m.
“The first couple of hours are kind of quiet, and there’s almost a tentativeness to the crowd,” Berkau said. “Then everybody’s attitudes start to loosen up.”
Rankin points out that even though 20something caters to the younger crowd, participation is not limited to that age group, evidenced by the presence of Steve Warner, the wine commission’s executive director.
“Phil Cline of Naches Heights is not 20something either, but he has more energy that most of the millennials who are there,” Rankin chuckled. “We just love going, and we look forward to see who’s going to be there this year.”
Camarda said, “By the end of the night, it turns into more of a party. People get pretty dressed up like they are going to out to a bar, so it’s definitely that kind of an occasion. We want people to be interested in wine and show them that it’s not stuffy or pretentious. You can enjoy wine and learn something at the same time.”
Berkau said, “It’s always fun, and it’s amazing to see how many people turn out for it.
“And I’m 28, so I’ve still got a couple of years left in me,” he added with a chuckle.