WALLA WALLA — For the last three of seven years, local music and local wine have poured through Sapolil Cellars‘ downtown tasting room.
But on Friday, the Sapolil label gave up its proprietary spot on the tasting room’s beverage list as top billing went to an out-of-town band, “Billy Roy Danger & The Rectifiers.”
It was all part of a plan, winemaker and co-owner Abigail Schwerin explained, to transform the Main Street tasting room into an intimate and well-known blues concert venue, one that will attract the biggest performers from the Pacific Northwest.
“To be able to see the beads of sweat on their faces while they are performing is amazing,” Schwerin said, the day after the concert.
About once a month, Sapolil Cellars will bring in some of the biggest regional names in blues music to build a venue and to introduce more people to Sapolil wines.
Already, the few major performers who have played in the tasting room have responded positively to the crowds and the acoustics, Schwerin said. She noted how award-winning blues and jazz trombonist Randy Oxford recorded a CD in the tasting room in 2008 after coming in one Sunday for a sound test and deciding the acoustics were perfect for his next live recording.
“They like to play in this venue. They like it because it is intimate. But they also know we have challenges because of the limit to the number of people that we can get through the door,” Schwerin said.
Which is why for the first time in the tasting room’s history, hard liquor and wine were served together on Friday night: to bring more people in and to bring in more sales.
Did the hard liquor do the trick?
Schwerin said Friday’s concert was at about 80 to 90 percent capacity.
“We could have had more people, but we were happy with the people we had,” she added.
Even at 90 percent capacity, the $10 cover wasn’t enough to pay the band’s fees. But if you add in the extra sales created by offering other libations, Schwerin said they turned a profit, though that wasn’t the only purpose for hosting the event.
“Really, the only reason we do it is because we enjoy the music,” she added.
But the music does come at a price.
“The frustrating part for us is that sometimes the wine gets lost when people come in to these events. We love it (hosting live bands). And we love the music … but as a result I will walk up to people and they will say ‘who are you?’ And I will say ‘I am the winemaker.’ And they will say ‘for who?’ And I will say ‘for Sapolil Cellars, which is where you are,'” Schwerin said.
Hosting live concerts has also given Schwerin a chance to reach out to people who normally wouldn’t go to the tasting room, but get drawn in by the music.
“If we reach 20 visitors in one night, introduced to Sapolil wine, in an atmosphere that is comfortable and fun for them, then we have made a customer, and that is far more valuable,” she added.
As for wine vs. hard liquor, wine won at Sapolil on Friday.
Schwerin said they sold more wine than mixed drinks, and beer came in last.
“I don’t want to sound completely business in this, but we know that people want more than just wine when they come in for entertainment. The fact is they want beer, they want mixed drinks,” Schwerin said.
Through the remainder of the year, the winery will offer beer alongside its house wines. Hard liquor will be added only through special single-day permits, and the tasting room is limited to no more than 12 permits in one year, which goes perfect with the once-a-month, big-name concert series.
Keeping to State Liquor Board requirements, a small kitchen will provide light meals for customers. But Schwerin won’t be doing fully catered events in conjunction with the monthly concert series because they usually lose money.
“What we learned was that we don’t want to combine a big dinner with music,” Schwerin said, referring to the Randy Oxford concert, where a full Cajun meal was served during the Mardi Gras theme event. Though the event was fun and great for rasing awareness about its wines and tasting room, it lost money, Schwerin said.
“If we are going to do music, we want to do music,” she added.
“We want to create this venue where people enjoy themselves. We understand the wine is going to get lost along the way. And we will achieve the sales. But we want to make sure we are able to support the music,” she added.
The next big-name blues concert and fully stocked bar at Sapolil Cellars will be “The Vaughn Jensen Band” on April 8, followed by “The Fat Tones” on April 30.Alfred Diaz can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8325.