Maryam Ahmed’s vision to empower people to experience wine travel differently shined a spotlight on Columbia Valley, Washington’s Walla Walla wine region.
by Maryam Ahmed
Powered by my business, Maryam + Company, Field Blends is a five-day immersive food and wine travel experience that connects the Epicurious to the local community and land. It focuses on the people who are behind the labels, working in the soil and shaping regional change in wine destinations that are less traveled to than others.
Bridging the Gap
Last June, 14 guests traveled from all over the country to explore Walla Walla, Washington, a region none of them had ever visited. I wanted Field Blends to tackle the veil that exists between what the industry does and what the consumer knows about it. This is especially important when it comes to regional diversity and sustainability movements.
“There’s definitely a gap between the consumer and the maker that’s a lot larger than people realize. If we can make that gap a little bit smaller, I think it will only change the industry for the better,” says Maiah Johnson Dunn, beverage director of New York Kitchen and community partner for Field Blend: Finger Lakes 2023.
In addition to bringing industry professionals and conscious consumers into conversation with one another, I also wanted to challenge the traditional one-way exchange that can often happen during immersion programs with winery owners, vineyard managers, and tourism boards. The truth is that people learn differently, so instead of “let us tell you how it works here”, Fiona and I worked together to shift the approach to “let us show you how it works here”.
“My mind, values, and all of my senses were engaged during Field Blends – from tasting Loess soil to hearing women winemakers share their challenges and triumphs to smelling charred oak barrels,” said Vanessa Raymond, founder of Telesomm App.
This is access that top-tier industry professionals experience, but it doesn’t always trickle down to even highly engaged wine travelers. It’s not just access, though. It’s also about creativity. The experiences we offer on Field Blends are just for our group, leaning on expertise, illustration, and, most importantly, community. Rarely did we walk away from a host without them saying “you’ve all given us a lot to think about!”
Walla Walla Overview
To get the week started, we (well, I should say my friend and professor at Walla Walla Community College, Matt Williams) dug a soil pit 48 hours before Field Blends started so that guests could get up close and personal with the soil profile at Pepper Bridge Vineyard.
During a hands-on cooking experience at SMAK wines, we combined Fiona’s love of dumplings with her seasonal rosés – challenging “classic” food and wine pairing principles and the notion that rosé is only for summertime sipping.
Most surprising was the wide open door provided by Cayuse Vineyards, a location usually closed to anyone except those with membership, for which there is a multi-year waitlist to join. Led by resident vigneronne, Elizabeth Bourcier, the team at Cayuse offered us an in-depth tour of their vineyards planted on ancient river stones, farmed by draught horses and specialists before taking us into the cellar.
“Coming into Field Blends I had an idea of what to expect, but once I experienced it, I was amazed to hear about the care, culture, and compassion that winemakers share with one another. From getting to know new people from all over the country, to going to exclusive tastings and experiences put together by Maryam, Field Blends opened my mind to the wine world,” says Miguel Cortina, Mexico editor for MotorTrend.
Field Blends Scholarships
Some of the strongest relations during the trip were between scholarship recipients. Three industry professionals received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend thanks to our partnerships with Washington State Wine, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, Visit Walla Walla, and Black Wine Professionals, all in support of creating access for the diverse community of wine professionals.
“The Field Blends: Walla Walla trip was beyond what I had imagined a food and wine trip could encompass,” says Tahlia Suggs, founder of Sisterhood of Winos. “Being able to meet other scholarship recipients from all over the country, who are all on different wine journeys, allowed us to connect on a deeper level that we didn’t know we needed.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The meticulous planning and regional engagement wouldn’t be possible without my community partners, Fiona Mak (Walla Walla 2022), Owner of SMAK Wines, and Maiah Johnson Dunn (Finger Lakes 2023), writer and beverage education manager at New York Kitchen. These women are helping to push the dialogue and close the knowledge gap between consumer and maker – an important next step in the evolution of different wine regions.
“I want to bring more attention to all the work everyone is doing in our community and industry. As a young wine region, Walla Walla is still searching for its identity but we are known to be innovative,” Mak says.
As we prepare for Field Blends: Finger Lakes this June, we continue to challenge the dominant narrative and explore what’s beneath the surface in the region. We expect that our guests will leave just as much of an impression on the people and places they explore as those that host the travelers themselves.
More about Field Blends:
- Field Blends Promotional Trailer, directed by Uncorked & Cultured
- Tickets are on sale now for Field Blends: Finger Lakes taking place June 5th – 9th, 2023. Click here to explore.
- We’re all for access! Download the Walla Walla itinerary to see our 2022 program and plan your next trip!
- Scholarship applications will open on Jan 23rd, 2023. Learn more about scholarships here.