Wine Tourism Brings People and Profit

Napa hosts Wine Tourism Conference: Why and how to promote your region

by Paul Franson
Michael Mondavi, Clay Gregory, Alan Shoup
Clay Gregory (center) moderated a panel about tourism featuring Michael Mondavi (left) and Allen Shoup (right).
Napa Valley, Calif.—North America’s first Wine Tourism Conference last week was snugly sandwiched between the first Napa Valley Film Festival and the first Flavor Napa Valley culinary festival, two prime examples of wine country touristic possibilities. The sold-out two-day conference attracted representatives from wineries across North America as well as tourism organizations, service providers and others interested in the topic.

Details of California’s state tourism programs, which heavily promote its wine and food and tie them to the California lifestyle, launched the first day. Caroline Beteta, president of the California Travel and Tourism Commission, described the agency’s work, illustrated with examples of its ads. Thomas Klein, proprietor of Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Wine Estates and a board member of both the Wine Institute and the California Travel and Tourism Commission, provided a link between both worlds.

Beteta has a $50 million budget, which helped bring 21 million visitors to the state. Those visitors, in turn, spent an aggregate $2 billion. “Tourism is California’s biggest export,” Beteta said.

She added that “fam” (familiarization) tours for travel planners and the media are the most cost-effective form of promotion.

Supporting stats
Dr. Steven S. Cuellar, Department of Economics at Sonoma State University, presented research backing the assumption that visitors to winery tasting rooms are especially loyal customers. Barbara Insel, Stonebridge Research, brought data galore to justify wine tourism’s importance. She noted that Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, N.C., welcomes 400,000 tourists each year, the highest tally in the nation; 27 million people visit wineries in the United States annually.

Napa County received 8.5 million wine tourists in 2007: They drove 10,000 jobs and $260 million in wages. Small wineries are helping to revive rural communities across the nation, too.

Perhaps the most entertaining session was on what makes a great wine region with Ray Isle, executive wine editor of Food & Wine; Leslie Sbrocco, author of “Wine for Women”; and Sara Schneider, wine editor at Sunset Magazine. They agreed that wine alone isn’t enough: Amenities and ease of access are vital (e.g., a four-star spa for the effervescent Sbrocco). Napa has all, while Walla Walla, Wash., and Anderson Valley, Calif., for example, are appealing places to visit but hard to get to.

Liz Thach from Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, Marcy Gordon (marketing consultant and author of “Come for the Wine”), and Joe Rosenberg from Google discussed social media as a tool to increase wine tourism.

Paul Wagner, president of Napa’s Balzac Communications and Marketing; Vicky Hastings from Maxwell PR and Elizabeth Martin-Calder, Martin-Calder Productions talked about events and festivals. Todd Skelton from TripAdvisor discussed how wineries and partners could use web travel sites to optimize their visitor ratings.

Clay Gregory, the head of Legendary Napa Valley, the valley’s tourism agency, moderated a second-day panel titled, “A Rising Tide Raises All Boats.” Panel members were Michael Mondavi of Michael Mondavi Family Wines and Allen Shoup, president of Long Shadows Vintners and long-time head of Washington’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Mondavi outlined the history of Napa Valley from the first winegrape plantings in 1838 through the early boom, phylloxera, Prohibition, the Depression and World War II. Napa’s wine industry really started to take off when his family bought Charles Krug Winery and started offering tastings, and especially when he and his father built the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966.

Now there are about 400 wineries in Napa Valley, but a vital component of the valley’s appeal are the county’s strict regulations to protect agriculture and undeveloped land, and to closely control winery activities. The county doesn’t allow inns, restaurants, gift shops and weddings and corporate meetings at wineries on unincorporated land, although some older wineries have retained those privileges through grandfather provisions.

Nevertheless, wineries led to tourism. “As people came, the restaurants and lodgings followed,” said Mondavi, noting the sad state of infrastructure in the 1960s: “The El Bonita motel was the only lodging in St. Helena then, and the A&W was the best place to eat.”

By contrast, Shoup pointed out that in Washington, tourists came first, and the wine business developed almost to serve them. The state always had the potential to grow great grapes, though, in the sparsely populated eastern region: Ste. Michelle had built a grand estate-style winery near Seattle. “Early on, the tourism people wanted a wine industry, but we were most of the business, and there were only about a dozen other small wineries.”

With the same type of self-serving altruism Robert Mondavi espoused, Shoup helped encourage other wineries. Now the state has 700 wineries and 35,000 acres of grapes.

Shoup tried to avoid the Balkanization, of say, Sonoma County, but Washington didn’t enact a conjoint labeling act to make all wineries list the state as well as local AVAs: Now, wineries in different appellations in the state compete instead of working together. “They don’t realize that a rising tide floats all boats,” Shoup lamented.

“Red Mountain wants to be exclusive,” he noted and said that, other than Walla Walla, the small cities in the grapegrowing areas that could benefit the most from wine tourism haven’t done much to promote it so far.

Ste. Michelle also has holdings in Napa County, and Shoup suggested that the county may be too rigid. “It’s difficult to take advantage of opportunities. It’s hard to run a winery here due to the restrictions.”

Napa’s self promotion
Gregory, formerly president of both Robert Mondavi Winery and Jackson Family Estates, revived the moribund local Napa County tourism effort two years ago, enlisting enthusiastic involvement from the powerful Napa Valley Vintners for the first time and helping to sell a Tourism Improvement District that adds 2% to lodgings costs to fund promotion.

The agency’s budget grew from $450,000, a legacy of the time when Napa County didn’t feel a need to court visitors, to today’s $4.5 million.

One of the most potent drivers of Napa Valley wine tourism has been the annual Auction Napa Valley, hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners for more than 30 years. It has contributed $100 million to local health and other charities and immensely built the reputation of the destination and its wines.

A key session shared helpful practices from a panel moderated by Ray Johnson of Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute and including Jonathan Rouse of the Okanagan School of Business; Jim Fiolek of Santa Barbara County Wines; Danene Beedle of Missouri Wines and Dr. Kyuho Lee of Sonoma State University. Audience members contributed their ideas, too.

Finally, the conference looked into the promising future of wine tourism.

Allen Shoup best summarized the appeal of tourism, however:  “Tourism brings in dollars without the need for homes, schools, hospitals and other services. On top of that, tourism creates jobs and makes people happy.”

The Wine Tourism Conference was organized by Zephyr Adventures and Martin-Calder Productions in partnership with Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, the Wine Institute of California and the Napa Valley Destination Council.

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