The 1990’s were a hard decade for the residents of Walla Walla, Washington. Unemployment rates remained above 7% and Walla Walla was well on its way to becoming just another struggling rural town. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that one industry lifted the community out of its slump. The growth of this single product was able to revive the town’s economy. The nominal average wage grew from $25,995 in 2000 to almost $35,000 in 2008. Tourism rose by nearly 60% between 2001 to 2008. The community’s labor force grew by 20% and high school graduation rates significantly increased. The one product that was able to put this tiny town on the map? Wine.
Walla Walla is blessed with the ideal natural conditions for the art of wine making. Its hilly terrain and climate attracted wine makers to the area. Walla Walla’s first present day winery was founded in 1977 and with its success others soon followed, increasing the area’s winery count to 130 in 2011. Walla Walla flourished, named in 1990 by the LA Times as “One of the most exciting wine regions in the world.” Walla Walla’s new-found fame drew tourists from across the globe. With the dramatic increase of tourism, the art and culinary sectors of the town flourished. Wine’s compliment goods in the tourism sector were numerous. Hotels, boutiques, and restaurants that had been struggling for years were brought back to life. New jobs were created from every sector of the wine-making process from irrigation to bottle design. As you can see, the economy of wine is huge.
One man, Steve VanAusdale, saw the potential Walla Walla’s wine economy had. Their was only one problem: no employees to make the wine. The process of wine making is long, difficult, and tedious. It involves constant decision making from when to harvest the grapes to the temperature at which the wine is stored. The presence of an experienced wine maker is necessary to make these decisions that determine the taste and quality of the wine. As president of Walla Walla Community College, VanAusdale saw the opportunity to turn regular college students into wine connoisseurs. In 1999 he began approaching local wine makers in hopes of formally training students in the art of wine making. What began as a modest endeavor turned into a multi-million dollar project. What came was the Walla Walla Community College Center for Enology and Viticulture. The center provides students with all the knowledge needed to work at wineries as well as how to physically make the wine. This is providing these students with a marketable, unique skill while creating future employees that will expand the local wine economy. Not to mention, increasing post-grad employment rate.
It’s incredible how a single product has the power to completely transform the economy of a given area. In a tourism situation, there are so many complimentary goods that when one sector benefits most of the others do as well. The wine industry of Walla Walla has expanded so much in just a short 37 years and has only just begun!