In a one-hour event billed as a "wine policy roundtable meeting," U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings (R.-Wash.) came to Bingen on Aug. 9 to meet with several local winery owners at the Bad Seed Cider House on State Route 14.
Hastings said the meeting offered him the opportunity for him to hear about issues impacting the local wine industry, and how to make the state's wineries even more successful.
"The Washington wine industry is bringing new economic development and tourism opportunities to communities throughout central Washington," Hastings said. "Supporting our wine growers and wine producers is one of the best ways to promote growth in our agricultural economy and attract visitors and new businesses."
Among the winery owners attending the event were Kris Goodwillie of Wind River Cellars in Husum; Kelly Sawyer of the Bad Seed Cider House, Bingen; Jody Ensminger, Celilo Vineyard, Underwood; and Terrance Atkins, Waving Tree Winery, Maryhill.
Those invited were there to talk with Hastings about challenges facing the industry, from federal tax and shipping policies to water issues. Other key topics discussed included interstate barriers for direct sales and wholesale, the growth of apple wine, and regulatory issues between Washington and Oregon.
"I'm here to listen. It's a fast trip down to touch bases," Hastings said.
"The meetings provide Hastings with an opportunity to hear first hand from wineries and wine grape growers about issues impacting the local wine industry and work with growers and producers and local tourism organizations to make Washington wine country even more of a success," said Jessica Gleason, Hastings' press secretary.
Goodwillie said she was most concerned with regulations that make it difficult to sell wines across the border in Oregon.
"The big issue, and the issue most important to wineries in this area, is the regulation about distribution of wines between Oregon and Washington," Goodwillie explained. "I can't sell direct to retail outlets in Oregon, and it's the same thing with Oregon wineries. That's not all bad, but it really hurts with small events and promotional opportunities. And we have to give up another 30 percent of our income to a distributor."
Kate Dugan, marketing coordinator for Columbia Gorge Winegrowers, a non-profit organization based in Bingen, agreed that the interstate issue was a huge problem.
"We would love for the challenge of crossing the Oregon/Washington state line to disappear, it's our number one challenge," Dugan explained. "When we cross state boundaries, it takes a cut [of profit] off the top. The states are protecting their own, but it's a challenge, in this area especially."
Hastings said he was proud of the positive economic impact the state's wineries are having.
"The Washington wine industry is doing a great job pushing a marketing strategy," Hastings explained.
Hastings pointed out that Washington is now the nation's second largest wine-producing state, with its wineries directly or indirectly employing more than 11,000 Washington citizens.
Goodwillie said her Wind River Cellars winery is having a great year.
"Our sales are up 15-20 percent over the last year," she said. "We just had our best month in history in July, and August is usually our best month."
Goodwillie added that Hastings was glad to see the region had gained the federally recognized American Viticultural Area designation.
"That gives us marketing benefits and increases the value of grapes grown in this area," Goodwillie explained.
Dugan said the visit was a positive one.
"We appreciated the time with the congressman," Dugan said. "He was receptive to what we had to say."
Goodwillie said she too was grateful for the attention from the area's representative in Congress.
"I'm always really impressed he takes the time to visit us when he's in the area. He visited a year ago too," she said. "He checks in and takes such an interest in the wine industry and what he might be able to do to help. He really supports the wine industry."
The gathering in Bingen was the first in a series of wine policy roundtable meetings Hastings is hosting in central Washington this month. Other meetings will come later in the Tri-Cities and in Yakima.