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Thursday, 29 November 2012 19:31

Wine and Tourism—The Experience

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by Dan Clarke

 

Some folks in wine country used to feel tourists got in the way.

Twenty years ago a friend was lamenting the growing incursion of tourists in the Napa Valley. Jon managed a vineyard known for producing very high quality Cabernet and Merlot grapes. Yuppies were coming up from the Bay Area, he said. They clogged the main traffic arteries up and down the Valley, especially on the weekends. They impeded business and personal travel for the locals. More than once he'd had to slam on the brakes to avoid crushing a clueless bicyclist who'd decided to execute a u-turn right in front of him on the Silverado Trail. The free-spending ways of these profligates had led to the closure—or even worse, gentrification—of some of the watering holes he and his friends favored. He didn't see himself as a beneficiary of this tourist boom.

DowntownCalistogaByPeterStetsonPSI PicmonkeyDowntown Calistoga photo courtesy of Calistoga Visitors Bureau.

About this time the bar and restaurant of Calistoga's Mount View Hotel had just been remodeled to effect an upscale Italian theme—obviously at significant expense. Jon and I were enjoying a couple of quiet beers one Friday evening and wondering if the house would ever recoup its investment when we had an epiphany. A handsome young couple came in and ordered a couple of beers. They asked for the grappa list and ordered a couple of those, too, though each glass was about $12-14. Fifteen minutes later they were out the door and on to the next beneficiary of their largesse. They'd just dropped about thirty-five bucks, not counting tip. At this point Jon and I realized that we were no longer part of the Mount View's* targeted demographic.

Perhaps Jon didn't benefit directly, but the winery that purchased his grapes didn't seem to mind catering to tourists. Visitors tasted wines there and bought bottles of wine; sometimes even cases. Moreover, if these tourists were treated reasonably well, they took home memories. They became ambassadors for wine and helped push the price of Merlot made from Jon's grapes to $75 a bottle.

Though wineries have existed in the area since the time of America's Civil War, it wasn't all that long ago that prunes were a more significant crop there than grapes. When Robert Mondavi opened his Oakville winery in 1966 there were approximately 25 wineries in the Napa Vallley. The Napa Valley Vitners Association now counts 436 wineries among its members. Obviously, the wine industry in Napa and the rest of the state has grown substantially in the last few decades and this has triggered a whole new category of tourism.

A couple of weeks ago I joined approximately 230 others at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. They came for the second edition of the Wine Tourism Conference, which was organized by Zephyr Adventures. While most at the two-day meeting hailed from California, tourism interests in 18 additional states and two Canadian provinces were also there. Attendees represented government-sanctioned promotional boards, regional grower and vintner organizations, individual wineries, vendors of specialty travel services and members of the press. According to Touring & Tasting, one of the conference sponsors, overall U.S travel is expected to account for $852 billion dollars in 2012. It's projected that 27 million people will visit wineries in the United States this year.

The phrase “wine tourism” is fairly new and lacks a universal definition. Actually, it might be considered a subset of larger categories like “agricultural tourism” or even “culinary tourism.” Whatever it is called, experiencing a rural environment can be a great adventure for many Americans trapped in hectic urban lives.

Jean-Charles Boisset PicmonkeyJean-Charles Boisset has inherited Haraszthy's legacy.As keynote speaker at the recent conference, Jean-Charles Boisset spoke of his first visit to California. In 1981 the 11-year-old boy visited Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County with his grandparents. Perhaps imbued with a sense of history from his French family, Boisset was quite taken with both the story of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic, a product of the area's secession from Mexico in 1846, and the pioneering efforts of Agoston Haraszthy who had planted vinifera grapes and established the Buena Vista Winery not long after that time. Though too young to qualify for sampling in the winery's tasting room, the young man from Burgundy did get a taste of California's wine elsewhere on the trip and found it very much to his liking. Three decades later Boisset now owns Buena Vista and seems acutely aware of its heritage. He is investing in substantial restoration and declares “a winery should be a place where people need to feel comfortable, to learn, to reflect.” In tying the efforts of America's wine pioneers to the country's recent focus on food, he observed, “The U.S. has always been a country running toward the future. You're the place that is creating this magic around the world.”

Consumers can get wine at the nearest supermarket; what they are seeking in visiting wine country is an elusive concept—an experience. Traci Ward, who represented Visit California at the tourism conference noted “a shift coming in who the traditional wine consumer is. Younger people don't want to be told what they have to do; they want will let you know what they want.”

People in the wine business attended the two-day meeting to learn more about how to create a a positive environment for visitors. Others—those in the travel business—came because they wanted to learn how to offer wine experiences for their clientele. Readers of Taste California Travel are typical of the audience all of these people traveled to Santa Rosa to learn how to please. Whether you're going to Napa or anywhere else in California's wine country, you're likely to be welcomed by people who're happy to see you. Enjoy the experiences you can have with them. However, if your experience is less than happy, don't put up with it. Your satisfaction is paramount

*While the Mount View Hotel & Spa probably does not have a grappa list these days (that was at least two concepts and two more remodelings ago), it is still a worthy establishment in Calistoga, one of the many offering a upscale environment for its visitors, be they yuppies or not. Currently there are two restaurants at the property, Barolo and JoLē. A decidedly unpretentious alternative down the street is Suzie's, where some of the locals go for a shot and a beer.

 

Editor's note: Planning a trip to any part of wine country? Taste California Travel's Resource Directory contains links to the website of thousands of Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to all of the state's wineries. We've also added a section for brewpubs and beer-centric restaurants and bars.

Read 3940 times Last modified on Friday, 30 November 2012 12:54