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Drink up! Wines fly free on Alaska Airlines

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 24 Sep 2013 | 6:00 AM ET
Wine tasting event in McMinnville, Ore.
George Rose | Getty Images
Wine tasting event in McMinnville, Ore.

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.

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"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.

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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).

High-flying purchases
CNBC's Phil LeBeau reports 58 percent of North Americans buy beverages over food when boarding a plane.

"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."

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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."

—By Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC. She is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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