Off 'Taste'

If anybody who attended the 2006 edition of the wine expo Taste Washington had anything good to say about the event, I haven't run into them yet. Exorbitant price ($125), too crowded, too many wines chasing too few hors d'oeuvres; ticket buyers feeling clipped, restaurateurs feeling either overburdened or left out, winemakers concerned about lack of focus on individual wines—which is ironic, since the event's organizers claim that the whole point of radically reducing the number of food offerings put the focus on wine rather than food. And the shrinkage of a three-day event to just one (April 8 at the Bell Harbor Conference Center) meant that serious aficionados had to spend the entire day drinking in seminars, drinking at lunch, and then kicking back by drinking for a few hours more at the Taste event itself. General consensus: a botch.

Since organizers (a subteam of the industry-subsidized Washington Wine Commission) say that as far as they're concerned, Taste 2006 was a roaring success, we can only speculate why the commission chose to mess with its only annual event targeted at middle-income wine enthusiasts at all, let alone so unsatisfyingly. Was inexperience at fault? (Virtually the entire staff has turned over since Taste 2005.) Is the commission distracted by its ambitious new (and expensive) marketing initiative, now winding up in the Greater Tampa area? Did money go to Florida that went in the past to Taste?

Whatever the cause, the commission has gotten in bad with a very significant band of wine fans. People who love wine enough to pay $125 to sample the state's best, but aren't at all likely to peel off the $500 and change required to huddle under the big tent in Woodinville for the Auction of Washington Wines in August—which, be it said one more time, is not really a wine event at all but a black-tie charity bash for Children's Hospital.

As for Washingtonians who can't even afford $125 for a couple hours of nibble and swill, the commission continues to do just about nothing. There's Washington Wine Month, of course, whereby the commission proudly takes credit for special wine promotions in supermarkets statewide. But in every other area that might contribute to a broadening of wine consumption to a wider demographic, to the education of the wine consumer, the commission is as committed to the private sector as the Bush White House. If you as an individual consumer want to learn more about wine, as a beverage and a part of human history, you can read books, you can attend informational tastings, you can sign up for a wine-appreciation class, but you will do so strictly on your own time and on your own nickel. I can't help wondering how much public education could be done here at home with a slug of money like that put together to promote Washington wine in Tampa ($365,000 for a two-month campaign). When I see the commission involved in a populist event, a vinous Bite of Seattle, I'll begin to believe the staff's claim to be equally at the service of all the stakeholders in this industry.

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