Monday, April 21, 2008

Wine Tourism - for beginners

An article that originally apeared in Meininger's Wine Business International


Sometimes one of the best ways to understand a situation is to approach it obliquely. The view from underneath or above can suddenly provide a clarity that was previously frustratingly absent. That, at least, is a conclusion I came to when working on the Wine Travel Guide to the World, a book published in late 2006 that was aimed at consumers who travel and enjoy wine. The focus, in other words, was on “wine tourism”.

But the moment you set those two words down on paper – or make them a major discussion point at a conference (and I've spoken on the subject at several such events), it becomes clear that they mean very different things to different people, countries and regions.

A fascinating illustration of these different attitudes is provided by a pair of the world's most dissimilar wine regions. On the one hand, there's Bordeaux, home to some of the most illustrious wine estates in the world and, in itself, a brand whose name is familiar to almost anyone anywhere with even a shallow knowledge of food and drink. On the other hand... there's Queensland. This part of north eastern Australia is not quite as well known for the wine it produces. Indeed, even within Australia, you'd be hard put to it to find a wine enthusiast who could name as many as one of Queensland's 150 or so wineries.

But now compare the way these French and Australian region approach the matter of wine tourism. For a clear-headed view of the Bordeaux attitude, one of the very best places to look is a thesis published last year by Marc Torterat Wine as part of his Master of Business Administration. Torterat focused his attention on one part of Bordeaux: the Graves and Pessac Leognan. This area, close to the city of Bordeaux itself, is home to Chateau Haut Brion, arguably the world's oldest wine brand (thanks to its 17th century promotion in Britain) and Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the highly successful chateau-hotel-restaurant-and-spa. Torterat's paper is invaluable because there is so little authoritative information available from other, official sources. Type “Queensland” and “wine tourism” into a search engine, however, and you find a detailed website created by the state government, and aimed at producers, complete with headings such as “The Need to Plan for Tourism” and “What is a tourism development plan?“. All 150 wineries are listed on the website, with their contact details, information on what they offer visitors and, where relevant, links to their websites. The entire effort needs updating – as the case for many winery websites – but it serves as a handy aid both for anyone considering visiting the area, or for wineries thinking about how to take advantage of the the potential tourism has to offer. Usefully, it challenges the winery owners to take the business of wine tourism seriously: “A marketing campaign may very well produce results, but if the tourism infrastructure and product does not meet visitor expectations, then the response will be short lived. Visitors may travel to the area once but never return”.

Back in Bordeaux, as I say, information is less easy to come by. While researching this article, and having just received an email that described the Medoc as “exceptionally gifted” in wine tourism, I telephoned the Bordeaux regional tourist office to ask for some statistics. How many wine tourists take advantage of the area's exceptional gifts? I wondered. The representative – who preferred not to be named – responded directly. “We have no idea”. I was a little surprised. The Napa Valley, I pointed out has recorded its wine tourist numbers carefully, noting growth from 15m in 2002 to 20 million in 2005, with spending rising from $1.3 billion to $2 billion. Surely Bordeaux has some kinds of statistics to set alongside these. “No”, came the answer. “If you can persuade the chateaux to tell us what they are doing, I'd be very grateful. We contact them and we try to get information back, but it never comes”.

Marc Torterat had slightly better luck than I did, discovering a total potential market of 450,000 visitors (based on interviews with tourism professionals in the region) and an actual number of 100,000 visitors for the region as a whole. This figure, however seems questionable when once learns that Chateau Mouton Rothschild (which does record the number of people who pay to enter its chais) welcomes some 18,000 of them. Are we really to believe that nearly one visitor in five join an organised group tour or make their own appointment to see around and possibly (for an extra €8.50) taste? According to Torterat, other classed growths in the Medoc report 5-8,000 visits.

While it would be useful to have some more accurate statistics for Bordeaux vineyard visits, Marc Torterat, who is now a consultant in strategy and marketing, makes a very perceptive point about wine tourism in general. “wine is not necessarily the first motive in visiting a region. For example, heritage is the dominant motivation for visiting the region of Burgundy, wine being only fourth. In Bordeaux, seaside recreation and visiting the Atlantic Ocean come before wine and food, being listing fourth.... This means tourists would require other types of attractions and would visit wineries along other sites”. In this respect, regions like the Medoc perform doubly poorly. On the one hand, the chateaux generally offer little beyond the chance to taste wine and possibly look at barrels - in many cases, there is not even the opportuity to buy – but on the other, the region is poorly stocked in alternative activities. The Hunter Valley, for example, offers golf courses and garden resorts; in the M├ędoc it is often hard even to find a restaurant.

Any analysis of the way wine tourism is viewed in the Old and New Worlds reveals that in Europe, most producers focus on the business of tasting and selling, most probably placing a significant amount of their effort into annual festivals at which all of the producers of a village or region gather to show off their wares, possibly alongside foods and handicrafts. In the New World, there is a far greater emphasis on offering a broader experience at the winery on a daily basis. Winery restaurants – a rarity in France – are commonplace in areas like Marlborough in New Zealand and Margaret River in Australia. And where food is not offered, there is often a picnic or even a barbecue area where visitors can cater for their own needs. The best explanation for this difference in approach may lie in the traditional European notion of “to each their own craft”. Many French producers have only recently even begun to bottle sell their own wine. Historically, the job of a vigneron lay in tending vines and crushing and fermenting grapes. The process of transforming the wine into cash consisted of negociating with a broker or merchant. Once one understands this basic attitude, it is easy to comprehend why wine labels are often so unadventurous (usually being bought from a local printer “off the peg”), and why the very thought of setting up a restaurant is a total anathema. The contrast with, say, the newer wineries of Patagonia could not be more striking. In that southern part of Argentina, selling food for money is an almost inevitable part of the initial business plan.

In the New World, there seems to be a far greater readiness to consider what the Queensland authorities call “tourist expectations” in a broader way. It is revealing to look at the criteria that were recently established in the Rhone Valley for its “Welcome of Quality” “Welcome of Service” and “Welcome of Excellence” ratings that wineries are invited to apply for.

Those wineries that want to be considered for a “Welcome of Quality” have to offer cleanliness, a place to park, “at least one correctly functioning toilet and a water distribution point available to its visitors”, chairs, a tasting (using wine glasses and apprropriate temperatures), a spittoon and non-alcoholic drinks for children (though not carbonated examples). To be considered “excellent “ - the highest possible rating – the bar is not raised very much higher, The glasses must now be crystal, englidsh must be spoken (and available on the mandatory) website and the staf should have some training and be able to “offer other services: arranging visits to other wine making cellars, restaurant reservations and booking accommodation”. Little, in other words, that will set one “excellent” winery apart from its neighbours.

The idea of an oficial, regulated system of wine tourism seems, though, to appeal to the European industry, in direct contrast to the laisser-faire attitude of the New World. And, while winemakers in the the Antipodes and Americas go their own way, benefitting from, but not relying on generic local websites and promotional bodies, in Europe, there seems to be a preference for officially-structured organisations. Perhaps the best known of these is a body called “The Global Network of Great Wine Capitals” that was launched in 2003 and brings together Melbourne, Bordeaux, Porto, Cape Town, Florence, and two cities that are apparently known as Bilbao-Rioja and San Francisco-Napa Valley. Santiago was also briefly part of the group, but dropped out at an early stage, to be replaced by its neighbour on the other side of the Andes, Mendoza. The aim of the network is to build “business networks and relationships in the viticulture industry” and to “encourage international winery tourism, as well as economic, academic and cultural exchanges between these famous capitals of wine”.

In fact, the group's highest profile activity has been in running a series of annual conferences and the creation of a set of “Best Of Wine Tourism” awards which are listed on the – greatwinecapitals.com – website and promoted through a limited amount of advertising and public relations and a colourful brochure which can be viewed on, and downloaded from, the website. The awards, for categories ranging from “Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices” and “Innovative Wine Tourism Experiences” to “accommodation”. “architecture” and “parks” reveal much about the differences between the various regions. Not to mention the fact that the organisation was established by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce (rather, revealingly, than either the tourism or wine promotional organisations).

The prizes are given by an unnamed “international panel” which seems to have an interestingly Gallic and generally European bias. Of the 210 awards made since the announcement of the 2004 list in 2003, 40, nearly a fifth, have gone to French entrants. Spain, Italy and Portugal have 34, 31 and 24 respectively, while Australia has to make do with 21 and the USA a mere 12. But when one considers the winners themselves some more interesting facts emerge. First, there is the fact that the same names seem to appear with curious regularity from year to year, making it easy to imagine that the number of entries is limited. But second, and more curiously, in France awards are given for Best Winery Restaurant to establishments such as Chateau Grand Moueys that actually have no restaurant at all but would cater for a party if required. Hardly what one might consider “wine tourism” as we know it.

The issue of wine tourism is, however, set to become a far more important issue over the next few years. For many – and I would say most – wineries, the business of welcoming visitors and sellling them wine will no longer be an option. It will be a necessity for survival. As routes to market become ever more narrow and prices are squeezed downwards by wholesalers and retailers – not to mention currency fluctuations. And, as producers globally struggle to escape the tyranny of Parker Points, the appeal of direct sales will inevitably grow. And as it does, my guess is that there will be a major move by European producers to learn the tricks of wine tourism from their New World counterparts. If they haven't left it too late.