On April 19, 1998, the first Taste Washington, a celebration of Washington state wine and food organized by the Washington Wine Commission, is held at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. The inaugural four-hour event involves more than 50 Washington wineries with food prepared by 40 Seattle-area restaurants. Tickets cost $50 each with proceeds earmarked for scholarships benefitting students enrolled in the state’s culinary, winemaking, and hospitality programs. It is a sellout success with 800 wine and food enthusiasts attending. Over the next two decades, event organizers change locations several times and expand the event from one day to four, adding a dinner series, celebrity chef competitions, and educational seminars, among other features. It is the largest single-region wine event of its kind in the nation.
Raising the Profile of Washington Wines
Taste Washington, sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission, grew out of a promotional campaign in the late twentieth century to increase awareness of the burgeoning Washington wine industry. "The industry was beginning to boom, expanding from 11 wineries in the state in 1977 to about 70 by 1987 ... The wine commission, working with a 1989 budget of $300,000, ramped up marketing efforts and launched the charity Auction of Washington Wines, a resounding success” ("Washington Wine Commission is Approved ...")
With that event under its belt, the commission began to explore other options to bring Washington wines to greater public attention. In 1997, Taste Washington was proposed, with the inaugural event scheduled for April 19, 1998, at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle. Attendees were lured by the opportunity to sip fine wine, sample fine food, and mingle with like-minded enthusiasts, all the while contributing to a worthy cause. "There will be an oyster bar with about 20 varieties available as well as food prepared by 40 Seattle-area restaurants. More than 50 Washington wineries will be pouring their wines. Proceeds from the event will support a scholarship fund for students of viticulture, culinary arts and hospitality services" ("Wines from Around the World Celebrated ...").
The Paramount continued to serve as the venue for the next three years; each year, more wineries, restaurants, and event-goers were counted. New features kept the public coming back. "The Washington wine industry claims it wants to focus on education and, from the looks of the new additions to this year’s event, it is putting its money where its mouth is. [In 2002], besides tasting and munching, you’ll also have access to such educational features as understanding the syrah grape, demonstrations of techniques used in the vineyard, how oak affects wine, matching wine with food, and access to a group of experts who can answer questions" ("Annual Wine-Tasting Event ...").
Wine and food aficionados enthusiastically embraced the concept. "Wonderful Washington wines will be paired with festive foodstuffs from more than 60 regional restaurants running the impressive gamut from A(ndaluca) to Z(oë) – with practically every favorite in between ... 'Last year at the Paramount, we turned away 300 people,' says Steve Burns, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission. 'This year , with the space afforded us at the Exhibition Center, Taste Washington will be much more of an experience. We’ve never had 120 winemakers in one room or generated this much interest from sponsors" ("Event Has You Eating Well ...").
By the fifth year, Taste Washington had moved to the massive Seahawks Stadium and Exhibition Center. That year (2002), 140 wineries and 85 restaurants were joined by a culinary cook-off, wine seminars, shellfish bar, auction, and a raffle to win trips to wine country. An estimated 3,000 people attended.
Bigger and Better
At the turn of the twentieth-first century, the event went on the road. A smaller version of Taste Washington visited cities including Chicago, New York, Dallas, and Tokyo, as well as Spokane and the Tri-Cities. After a few years, the commission felt its promotional purposes had been met and the traveling version was discontinued.
As with any large event, there were a few growing pains. Some attendees felt Taste Washington had gotten too big, too crowded, and too far away from its roots. In response, organizers scaled back the 2006 event, reducing the number of restaurants from 92 to 23, and moving from the stadium events center to a more intimate setting on Pier 30. But a year later, a bigger and better Taste Washington was back, taking over the stadium exhibition center again coupled with a who’s who of area chefs.
"Since its inception in 1997, Taste had become a premier destination event that attracted international media and created anticipation from consumers willing to stand in lines worthy of a rock concert. It was an opportunity not only to sample numerous Washington wines but taste complementary foods from Seattle’s first-rate restaurants. The salivation was audible. We watched the sophistication of the local wine industry and culinary scene evolve over the event’s first eight years" ("Taste Washington Must Recapture ...").
Organizers continued to fine-tune Taste Washington over the years and enthusiasm continued to flourish, reflecting Washington’s growing reputation as a top-shelf wine producer. "The annual showcase for the state wine and food scene has served as a metaphor for the growth and success of the nation’s No. 2 wine-producing state" ("Better with Age").
Just days away from opening the 23rd Taste Washington on March 19, 2020, the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and initial statewide shutdowns. A virtual rebound took place in 2021 when Taste Washington merged with Washington Wine Month. "Each week, six featured restaurant partners will create a takeout menu inspired by a theme like cabernets and casseroles and chardonnay and catch of the day ... Along with a host of takeout specials, the event will also be sharing recipes following the weekly theme paired with a Washington wine so residents can still participate at home and practice their own culinary skills. The event is also offering several wine getaway packages from local hotels if you are feeling stir crazy at home" ("Taste Washington 2021 Returns ...")
Taste Washington returned full-blown in 2023 with four days of educational seminars led by national experts, and food and wine events with celebrity chefs, culminating with the Grand Tastings weekend featuring several hundred wineries.