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Who visits vineyards?

Everybody likes wine!  Okay, not quite everybody.  But besides the President of France, really a lot of people love wine.  And it’s time for wine tourism to take this into account.  This post summarizes some of my philosophy on our winery tours and travel activities by thinking about normal people and what they want when they visit a vineyard.

Wine tourism falsehoods

  • False: Only wine snobs will enjoy a winery tour
  • False: A vineyard tour can take place in one room
  • False: All potential vineyard visitors use wine guides
  • False: If you don’t drink, you can’t enjoy a winery tour
  • False: Young people aren’t interested in wine

To put it more positively:

Wine tourism TRUTHhoods

Normal people think wine is cool

About half of the people who visited O’Vineyards this year have never visited a vineyard or winery before.

There’s this very old notion in France about wine tourism.  If somebody is averti (ie “in the know”), they will find out about a winery in a guide book, they will call ahead of time to arrange a visit, they will taste the wine during that visit, and then they will purchase a significant amount of wine.  This is a fine way of doing things for wine nerds.  But only a tiny number of wine drinkers are wine nerds.

Most drinkers are totally normal people who drink wine 2-4 times a month and have never even considered buying a magazine about wine.  If they are visiting a place like Carcassonne, it will not take long for them to realize they are in wine country.  The land between villages is covered in vines.  They will get curious about visiting a winery. And they are frequently surprised to see how hard it is to find a good vineyard to visit.

These people don’t know a ton about wine, but they want to learn a little.  Wine tourism should focus more heavily on this demographic because they’re more fun than snobs and they are more statistically significant.  If we could only sell wine to wine nerds or normal people, we’d choose normal people.  And if we could somehow forbid wine snobs from drinking O’Vineyards, we probably would.

Standing in a gift shop is rarely fun

Our goal is to entertain winery visitors.

The thing about entertaining normal people is that it’s marginally more difficult in some ways.  Wine nerds are so desperate to be immersed in wine culture that they will put up with almost anything.  For normal people who have never thought of listing “wine” as an interest on their facebook profile, we’re going to have to be a little more entertaining.

That said, it’s not very hard to be entertaining.  Wine is inherently cool.  You have to fight pretty hard to make it boring.  And I’m surpised that some wineries spend a huge amount of resources making themselves uninteresting.  One of the most common ways for a winery to develop tourism is to build a giftshop.  More accurately a caveau de degustation or a tasting room. And a tasting room is important for lots of reasons.  But it shouldn’t be the only thing you do.

My tasting room at O’Vineyards is just a really comfortable living room.  There’s no cash register.  There aren’t price tags.  You sit down and enjoy some wine.  And there are direct views on the vines at all times.  If I didn’t have a view on the vines from the tasting room, I’d probably encourage people to taste in the winery.  Again, it’s just more interesting.

Most wine retailers would kill for the opportunity to show their customers a vineyard. To taste the wine in situ surrounded by barrels or by vines.  Winemakers have this opportunity.  And instead we spend tons of money to build tasting rooms that are totally removed from the vineyard!

Normal people don’t read wine magazines

There are other ways to let normal people know they’d have fun visiting your vineyard.

Normal people don’t think about wine all the time, and they don’t invest in wine guides and wine magazines.  While it is logical to advertise winery tours, wine camps, etc. in wine magazines, it also makes sense to reach out through other non-wine media.  I remember a story from one of the people at who mentioned that their ad campaigns in so-called “feminine magazines” were infinitely more successful than their ads in wine zines.

I obviously do a lot of Internet work.  But you don’t need to follow the same path as me!  Consider at least adding your property to TripAdvisor.  And encouraging visitors to leave a review when they get back home.

Consider your working relationships with hotels, B&B, gites, and house rentals in your area.  Can any of them send traffic your way?  What about restaurant staff?  If a restaurant sells your wine, the staff there are in an amazing position to send drinkers your way.

Working with retailers is harder because they sometimes fear the tourist will circumvent the middleman while visiting the vineyard.  But consider giving your cavistes gift certificates for a free winery tour and tell them to distribute them for purchases of 6 bottles from your estate (or whatever).  A clever retailer will be able to upsell one-time clients on your wine, and you’ll increase your overall sales while getting some travelers to come by.  And even though you don’t make any direct cash off of those tourists, they will go home and talk about you, and you are going to sell more wine to that retailer.

Brochures and signage are good too.  However, in my experience, word of mouth always beats a stack of brochures or dilapidated roadside sign in the shape of a wine bottle.

And don’t ignore trade press or wine press.  They’re important too.  Just for different reasons and different audiences.

Wine is only one weapon in your entertainment arsenal

A lot of people who visit O’Vineyards don’t drink wine.

I know it seems crazy that somebody who doesn’t drink wine might visit a vineyard.  But this happens–all the time.  Pregnant ladies, young teenagers, religious abstainers, and people who plain out dislike red wine.

This is because people visit a vineyard expecting to be entertained.  And wine tasting is only one possible method of entertainment. Education and personality are big here.  People generally expect to learn something.  If this is their first winery, they’re probably curious about really simple stuff like how wine is made.  What does a vine look like?  How often does it give fruit?  What’s the difference between red and white and rose?  Normal people don’t know this stuff, but they’d like to know.

Of course, it’s not just about conveying information.  It’s about having a good time.  Think about going to the bar.  People can drink at home, so why do they go to a bar and pay more money?  It’s usually for the social element.  Guests to your winery will appreciate meeting a winemaker and finding out what a winemaker is like.  It’s pretty rare for most people.  Like meeting an astronaut or a racecar driver.

Although I should also mention that you shouldn’t treat these tourists like idiots.  They don’t know a lot about wine, but they’re still intelligent.  More than a few tourist attractions in the region have developed expensive but meaningless light shows.  Wine tourists are not THAT easily entertained.  Actually, I’d argue it’s even easier to entertain them.  You don’t need to build a light show.  You just need to open up and share what you know.  Tell a funny story.  Tell a sad story.  Listen to their stories too.  Wine tourism, like wine should be a fun social experience.

Wine tourism is no longer for curmudgeonly snobs

Get them young!  (but not too young!)

Don’t underestimate 20-something year-olds.  Remember the sweet spot that we’re looking to hit is normal people who think wine is cool but don’t necessarily know a lot about it.  Blank slates, if you will.  A lot of young people fit that description…almost by definition.  Americans can’t start drinking wine til we’re 21 so it’s difficult for somebody in their twenties to know much at all about wine other than “I like it!”

If you are looking at developing wine tourism, consider the vast potential of this market.  We tend to like authenticity which is wonderfully inexpensive in terms of communication, ads, and PR.  Also, converting young people gets you a brand advocate that will market you and your wines for a lifetime to come.  I have a lot of twenty-somethings who visit the vineyard and end up recommending it to their parents and grandparents.


I will confess that this post is where I stand today, and my views will almost certainly evolve over time.  And I should also mention that a lot of winemakers complain about a sort of looky-loo tourist that I have never met.  They spend an hour or two at the vineyard, tasting for free and then they leave without buying anything or they buy a single bottle of the cheapest wine or somesuch.

Honestly, this is why I charge for tours.  I still offer free giftshop tastings if that’s what people specifically ask for.  But then they also know that it’s thirty minutes and then I gotta run.  And (knock on wood) I still haven’t had any bad experiences.  I really enjoy meeting all the kooks who come through this vineyard.  And they mostly seem to enjoy meeting us too.  Here’s to hoping I never have to complain about visitors!

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  1. Wink Lorch Says:

    Ryan, so many fantastically important points you’ve made in this superb post, I wish that I could have written it – many congratulations! This ought to become the start of a blueprint for wineries planning to open up more to wine tourism…. Are you going to write it in French too??

    One of the most important points that isn’t being discussed enough, I believe, you slip in right at the end – the question of whether wineries should charge visitors. This is a common practice in the USA of course, but with the exception of in Bordeaux and Champagne, is not at all common in France, or indeed elsewhere in Europe, mainly for historical reasons that in the past visitors to wineries all came to buy rather than to visit as ‘wine tourists’. Groups have historically paid, because they wouldn’t buy so much and would be given more of a visit as well as a tasting. I think that Europe needs to re-think this and offer more as you’ve outlined, but not be afraid to charge either (perhaps with refunds on purchase).

    Once again, well done again for writing this and including so many pertinent points. I hope your own views do not sour to much over the coming years of welcoming visitors!

  2. mroconnell Says:

    My pleasure, Wink. You’re right of course about me glancing over charging money as an afterthought. For most winemakers, that is the main point of contention. That’s why I still offer the free tasting ‘the french way’ or ‘the giftshop tour’, and it’s not like I refuse to entertain those people. But I will sort of hurry them along. It’s also interesting to note how my proximity to an airport that is exclusively serviced by RyanAir has influenced my tourism philosophy. Since I know the majority of my visitors cannot bring wine back with them, I started charging for tours very early on.

  3. Ward De Muynck Says:

    Very strong points and some food for thought for our own cellar door. We give free tastings to all the visitors who let us know in advance (do you work with reservations?). We give tours to other winemakers, sommeliers and the bigger clients right now but think about charging for a wine-experience (tour, tasting, winepairing…) with a refund like Wink suggests.

    Most of the experiences had been appreciated by the visitors (being immersed for the wine nerds / learning something new and have more respect for wine afterwards for the usual visitor) and for us (nice to meet your clients / most of them buy at least a case). The biggest reason to organise the tours to me: the only way to truly understand a wine is to visit the place where it is “born”. This can turn your visitors into ambassadors.

    Another question: do you provide wifi for your visitors?

  4. mroconnell Says:

    I work with reservations but we accept a fair number of tours without reservation. And tastings are without reservation. We have done 100+ tours in the past few months, and over a third of those had no reservations. There is free wifi. You should totally do tours. :)

  5. Brett Jones Says:

    Excellent post Ryan and, as ever, you have given this a great deal of thought. My experience of a successful visit is where the visitor takes away a holistic view of the winery: not just the wine but the winery, the views of the vineyard, the family photos on the wall, the anecdotes, the animals… They return home and tell all their friends about the little slice of life they’ve seen – and that the dog’s name is Riesling.
    Your enterprise has become ‘their’ winery.
    I see no problem in charging for visits which, as Wink says, could be refunded against wine purchases. After all, possibly the most important question asked is: “Où est la toilette?”

  6. mroconnell Says:

    haha, you’re right that is the one question everybody asks.

  7. Bourgogne Live Says:

    Excellent billet Ryan que tu devrais vite traduire en français pour qu’il se diffuse encore mieux car il est très riche et plein d’enseignements :-)


  8. Tom Says:

    Ryan, Charging is a great idea, but remember that Ryanair not only attracts cheapskates but also rich bon-viveurs having their 12th holiday of the year, but only with 10Kg hand-luggage allowance.

    Spend some time seeing if you can’t charge people 100% more, but e.g. for Brits (and because of Ryanair I’m sure we’re talking about Brits) give them 50% back as a limited time voucher for your UK agent.

    I know that Naked Wines follow Virgin in ‘giving away’ a huge first order discount of £40 that ought to cost you nothing, and would happily give you a ‘subsequent order’ credit for at most half it’s face value, as most end up unused. That way you can say ‘ I’d like to give you a bottle of wine where YOU live to enjoy with YOUR friends that you don’t have to carry’, and have them envagelicise locally on your behalf.

    But great article. I hope I can use it, properly accredited of course!


  9. mroconnell Says:

    Tom, I actually get more than half of my RyanAir clients from a country called Ireland. You’ve probably heard of it since that’s where RyanAir comes from. ;) I do offer a Naked Wines voucher to the tourists with UK addresses and it gives more away than what you suggest. So it is good advice! :) Of course you can use it. :P

  10. Tom Says:

    Ryan, as ever you’re so right. Glad to have great ideas confirmed! Of course you’re right about Wine lovers from the Emerald Isle, I just thought of Standsted and froze.

    You might follow the logic of this report and advertise on the EasyJet route between Toulouse and Rome : The Top Guy us indeed the Top Guy, or a good host.

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  12. mroconnell Says:

    Oh that’s a fantastic idea! Thanks for the lead, Tom. :)

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