wine tasting

Oregon & Washington wine flies free on Alaska Airlines

Wine

How’s this for the airline/airport amenity of the week?

Oregon’s wineries and wine-growing regions have become popular destinations for wine-loving travelers, but the cost of taking a case of wine on the airplane deters many people from buying more than the bottle or two they can tuck into their checked suitcase.

But Alaska Airlines and the Oregon Wine Board have teamed up once again for the Oregon Wine Flies Free program.

Starting May 1 passengers on domestic Alaska Airlines flights departing from Eugene, Medford, Portland and Redmond in Oregon and from Walla Walla in Washington can check in one case of wine for free.

Better yet – anyone with an in-bound boarding pass and a (free) Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan membership can get a complimentary wine tasting at any of about 300 participating wine tasting rooms.

The program, which ran for two months last year, has been renewed for a full year. More details about the Oregon Wine Flies Free program here.

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Not to be outdone, Washington Wine Country continues to offer the Taste and Tote program for wine-loving travelers wanting to take wine home on Alaska Airlines flights departing from the Yakima, Pasco and Walla Walla airports. In addition to being able to check in one case of wine for free, Alaska Airlines passengers get complimentary tastings at regional wineries and waived rental car drop off fees.

Wine flies free on Alaska Airlines

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In the past 10 years the wine industry in Oregon and Washington has ripened into big business, with Oregon’s 465 wineries now contributing close to $3 billion to the state’s economy each year and Washington’s 800 wineries pouring more than $8.6 billion into the state’s coffers.

But while visiting wineries for tastings is now a popular tourist activity in many parts of the Pacific Northwest, taking home a case of wine can be costly.

Shipping a case of wine as freight can cost up to $60 via UPS and checking it as baggage on an airplane can cost $25 or more, depending on the weight of the wine and the number of other bags being checked.

“Ironically, we’d see people willing to spend $300 to $500 on a case of wine, yet that extra $25 to put it on the plane was a negative,” said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of Washington’s Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. “It did stop people from buying the wine at the wineries.”

In an effort to stem the flow of lost wine sales, in 2011 Washington wine growers in the Walla Walla area persuaded Seattle-based Alaska Airlines to extend a program it offers to passengers traveling out of California wine country via Sonoma County Airport (STS).

The airline now waives the charge for checking a case of Washington wine for anyone flying out of three airports in the state’s winery-rich regions (Pasco/Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Yakima).

Now, instead of just one or two cases of checked wine per week, Alaska Airlines is transporting upward of 30 cases of wine a week per participating airport during peak season, according to airline spokeswoman Bobbie Egan.

And the waived fees make a difference. For the 70 wineries in Walla Walla area alone, “the program represents at least a quarter to a half-million dollars of additional wine sales a month in the peak season,” said Wollmuth.

Washington’s “Taste and Tote” concept, which began as a pilot program,, is being extended. And through Nov. 20, visitors to Oregon’s wineries and tasting rooms can take advantage of the Oregon Wines Fly Free program if they’re flying on Alaska Airlines from any of four Oregon airports (Portland, Eugene, Medford and Redmond).

“Like any other business, we’re always trying to figure out a way to reach more people,” said Charles Humble of the Oregon Wine Board. “Tourism in many parts of our state is now incredibly linked to the wine industry and if people can come here, buy a few bottles of wine and take it home without having to pay for it to be checked, that’s a good incentive.”

But what is the incentive for the airline?

“It’s a good partnership for us,” said Egan,” “It’s a win-win for these areas that produce great wine and it’s a great way for us to promote these wonderful destinations that we serve.”

In addition to advertisements and mentions in social media the airlines gets from the participating wineries and tourism groups, Alaska Airlines asks the wineries in the participating regions to waive the tasting fees for its passengers who show their boarding pass.

That’s a benefit most wineries seem happy to offer. “Many of these folks have traveled to our region specifically to do wine tasting and they are motivated to buy,” said Ron Peck, executive director of Tourism Walla Walla, where wine tourism brings in about $100 million annually to the region.

“I think it’s clever for Alaska Airlines to appeal to the wine traveler,” said Chris Nishiwaki, a Seattle-based restaurant, food and wine writer. “It becomes an incentive for travelers to buy wine at their destinations since baggage fees have become such a nuisance. Furthermore, wine travelers spend over 10 percent more over other travelers. So it’s the ideal audience to cajole.”

(My story about the Alaska Airlines program to fly cases of wine for free first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior)