Madness in the Making: Jamie Peha Takes on Merlot
April 21, 2010 by Doug Haugen
Jamie Peha is a spy.
If she’s not a spy, then maybe she’s a ninja, a mercenary or a guerrilla. The reason I speculate about this is because Jamie Peha seems to have her finger on the pulse of everything going on in the wine and food world(s); whenever there’s an “explosive” event, she seems to have been directly involved; and yet if you weren’t looking for her, you’d hardly know she was there. She’s the invisible hand that guides more than you can imagine.
Last summer, I had an idea for an event, but I am not a natural-born event planner, and I didn’t know where to start. A fellow wino asked me if I knew Jamie Peha, and I had to admit that I didn’t—the name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. It was pointed out to me that we’d been Facebook contacts for quite some time, and I hadn’t even noticed. We set up a meet-and-greet over some vino, chatted a little, and within a week, I had a menagerie of people calling me interested in contributing to my event. I was wholly unprepared for the onslaught of support, and had to postpone.
Since then, we’ve both attended and been proud media sponsors for several of her events, but with her newest extravaganza quickly approaching, I decided that I needed to pin her down to get the skinny on her, and on Merlot Gone Mad.
Who is Jamie Peha? “I’m kind of an idea person,” she told me over a glass of Camaraderie Cellars Merlot on a recent night at The Tasting Room, “and an event person, and a business person.” That’s the short answer, one that barely scratches the surface, like what I imagine a “Cliff’s Notes for Dummies” would look like if it tried to explain the Peha phenomenon. Chatting with people around the industry seems to illustrate that all roads lead to Peha, and “Six Steps to Jamie Peha” would be taking the long way around.
Fifteen years ago, Jamie was working at the Washington Wine Commission, which was hosting the “World Vinifera Conference,” and, in conjunction, a little related industry event called “Taste Washington,” which consisted of twenty Washington wineries and twenty local restaurants pairing their vino and nosh. Having already logged “many years” in the restaurant industry, she was given the challenge to turn Taste Washington into a consumer event, and over the course of the next ten years, she turned it into what you what you see today: a colossal wine and food extravaganza with over 250 wineries, dozens of restaurants and other participants. The Taste Washington in 2000 was Jamie’s last, and since she left, the Commish has continued the growth trajectory she nurtured. Taste continues to be the premier wine and food event in the State.
Jamie left the WWC five years ago, and spent four years working in the promotional side of Seattle Magazine. Considering her love of networking and introducing unwitting business bosom buddies (matchmaker, matchmaker…), she decided to leave SM to start her own company called Peha Promotions, an event/marketing company. For a while, she planned on devoting her time to marketing and business development, but considering her history of success, she kept getting called to help with events. Jamie told me, “Whether I like it or not, I’m in the event business, but if you look a little bit further than that, I’m really in the partnership business.”
A fact well demonstrated by the fact that Peha Promotions doesn’t even have a website (yet).
With a history in restaurants, the wine industry, events and promotions, it’s no wonder that Jamie has been a key player in so many popular events. “This is Seattle. We have a great food community. We are an amazing agricultural state. We have so much to offer, and we’re so fortunate that we live here; and it’s hard to have an event and not have those elements be a part of it, because it’s right here, and that’s what we do,” she told me.
Her events, though, have a tendency to be more than just an exercise in gastronomic hedonism; she is also an advocate of education: “The thing that’s so fun about the wine industry is that there are so many ways to educate people.”
Jamie was recently involved with the 2nd Annual Seattle Food & Wine Experience, which brought together over a hundred wineries and breweries from Washington, Oregon and California, scads of local restaurants and a Starbucks coffee lounge, complete with cooking demonstrations and book signings for an afternoon of moderated intemperance at the Seattle Center for just $49. Attendees had the opportunity to chat with winemakers, find pairings they enjoyed, try a lot of wine, beer and food they’d never tasted before (maple bars with bacon!), learn cooking techniques from some of the Northwest’s most prominent chefs, and take recipe books home with them. It was like Taste Washington Lite, and at a fraction of the price.
Last year, she also got involved with Wine Rocks (created in 2008 by Jen Doak of The Tasting Room). Continuing her participation this year, the 3rd Annual Wine Rocks will be held at the newly opened Hard Rock Café in downtown Seattle on June 3. Winemakers and other wine personalities will be performing musically with their respective bands while participants taste wines from a grip of Washington State wineries and munch on food provided by Hard Rock. Last year even included a solo performance by Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America. The headliner for this year is yet to be announced.
In September, Jamie has planned an event called “Blend,” focusing on—you guessed it—blends. There will be varietal blends, vineyard blends, the works. Attendees will learn the winemaker’s art of blending, and get to taste some serious wine.
But currently, Jamie is focused on the next big event, Merlot Gone Mad.
On May 2, over fifty Washington wineries will be pouring over a hundred Merlots at the Tulalip Resort and Casino. Pairing foods will be provided by the first-class chefs at Tulalip, and if that’s not enough, attendees can participate in guided discussions about the grape, its history, how it grows in various AVA’s, and how winemakers finesse their visions of Merlot in their wines.
According to Jamie, Merlot Gone Mad is the perfect opportunity for people “to be able to come and learn about this grape, which is a great food-pairing wine, and which Washington sort of staked its claim on years ago…the fact of the matter is, Merlot is a really great grape, and we do it so well, that I think that even people who think they don’t like Merlot don’t really know, because they don’t drink it enough to know. So, this is a fabulous opportunity to prove to people that there are some fantastic wines out there that are really affordable with this amazing fruit, and if you’re a new wine drinker, this is a perfect opportunity for you, because this is a great food wine.”
The initial spark for this event actually came from Don Corson of Camaraderie Cellars, who said to Jamie, “Why isn’t anybody doing a Merlot event?” Her wheels started spinning immediately. The time became right when Josh Wade over at DrinkNectar.com decided to organize a Washington Merlot Twitter Tasting, which swept the globe on March 25, and with so many people around the world talking about Washington Merlot, the Merlot Gone Mad event got the push. By February 28, the interwebs were already all a-Twitter about the Washington Merlot tasting—still a month away—and at Seattle Food and Wine Experience, Jamie, instead of merely coasting through the event she had worked so hard on, grabbed my sleeve in passing and said, “Next event, Merlot Gone Mad, May 2, we’ll talk.” She was already assembling the pieces.
“Some people have said, ‘Oh, well, I might get tired of tasting just Merlot,’” Jamie mentioned with attentive dismissal, “but often I find at events that when you’re tasting so many different kinds of wine that the wines don’t stand out, because you’re all over the map tasting wine, and this really gives you an opportunity to figure out what Washington Merlot is, how the winemakers can finesse the grape, where the grapes are from, and really walk away with some education.”
On the educational side of Merlot Gone Mad, Don Corson from Camaraderie Cellars will be hosting a seminar in a side room showcasing two of his Merlots, one recent and one older, and from different AVA’s. He’ll be talking about the ageability of Merlot and how significantly different Merlots can be from different vineyards. Northstar will also be discussing their wines from both Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley, and Wahluke Slope and Red Mountain will be reviewed. Participants can taste these six different wines, join the discussion, and learn a thing or two.
So, why Tulalip Resort and Casino, instead of some swank locale in downtown Seattle or in the middle of Woodinville Wine Country? It’s simple.
Last year, Tulalip Resort held Taste of Tulalip–a pretty high-end event—with great success. Pair that with a gorgeous ball room, a great wine program, and the fact that they totally support Washington wine, it seems a natural fit. Tulalip wants to show people that it’s more than just a casino, but also a hotel and a great food location with great chefs, and they want to get more involved in the wine scene they love. “I really believe in the place,” Jamie said, “They are working very hard to be a part of the community.”
“How far would you drive for 100 world class merlots?” Jamie asked me, to which I had to reply that I would crawl if need be. But, if driving the approximate forty-five miles from Seattle seems a bit daunting, shuttle service is being provided by Butler Transportation. For just $25 round trip, you can relax in a Mercedes Sprinter to and from the event. Another incentive is that the casino side of Tulalip is offering $100 in free play to attendees, and the hotel is offering inexpensive rates for overnight stays.
The Tulalip chefs will be serving up food pairings to accompany all the Merlot, including stations of lamb, beef, chicken and seafood, showcasing both the culinary talent at Tulalip and the food-friendliness of Merlot.
At just $45 a ticket, while a little outside of the metropolis, the value of the event is incredible enough to make the trek. Discounted tickets will be offered for designated drivers, too.
It all fits into Jamie Peha’s philosophy.
“One of the things I really feel strongly about—you know, people find their different niches out there. There’s the auction niche , catering to people who have disposable funds and who are kind of traveling in these certain circles, and I think that market is extremely well served. And then you have sort of the tier down from that. And then there’s kind of the everyman, and I’m a bit of the everyman, woman, person . There’s a lot of untapped market out there. There are a lot of people we still need to educate. There are a lot of people who are still a little afraid of wine. And I really feel like one of the reasons that I try to set my event prices at a very affordable rate is because those are the people I want to bring in. I want to bring in a new market. I want to bring in the people who aren’t already–we’re not singing to the choir. We’re bringing in people who are like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ We’re turning them on to it, and that floats my boat. It’s like, OK, we’re making a difference here. I want to bring these wineries a new audience. I want to connect those two things. And I think that’s not saturated. I just don’t think it is.”
Jamie is clearly excited about Merlot Gone Mad; her characteristic enthusiasm was in high gear throughout our conversation. As we finished our wine, I asked her if she had any closing comments, and she sounded not so much like a promoter, but more like a prescient believer in the Next Big Thing.
“I think that we have a lot of really great wine there, and I think that as a starting place for this event, I say people step outside of the box a little bit, drive a few miles out of town or purchase the $25 round trip thing, or spend the night up there at the Tulalip and come and experience this event, because they will not be disappointed. They will not be disappointed on a number of levels. One, for the amount of money they spend. Two, for the quality of wine they are able to taste. For the education, for the food element, and for the relationship building in general, I just don’t think people will be disappointed, and I really hope they decide to come.”
For their sake, I hope so too.