Wine Tourism á la Français

My colleague Pierre has returned from visiting his parents in Toulouse and he brought with him the May 2012 special wine tourism issue of La Revue du Vin de France,  which features “Les 35 meilleurs circuits du vin.” Since I’m working on the wine tourism chapter of my next book I couldn’t wait to dig in.

So what are the 35 best wine tourism destinations? Well, given the French readership of La Revue it should be no surprise that 29 of them are in France itself. I’m sure that if Wine Spectator were to pick out the best wine touring routes there would be an American bias (out of practical concern if nothing else) although it might not so extreme as this French case.

Tour de France

I sensed a diplomatic hand at work in making the selection as virtually every important wine region in France is singled out in one way or another. I think you could organize a Tour de France-style bicycle race from these wine tourism suggestion (Le Tour typically touches every corner of France). If you did, I suppose you’d want to stock up on Boisset’s Yellow Jersey wine, made in tribute to the great race  – the plastic container fits neatly in your bicycle’s water bottle cage.

Even Paris makes the wine tour list. You might wonder at this because vineyards are not frequently seen on Parisian hillsides, but that’s not why wine tourists go to Paris. It’s the shops and wine bars that are the attraction here. 

So La Revue directs you to visit Galeries Lafayette in the IX arrondissement to see the magnificent collection (“12000 bouteilles en cave”) of Bordeaux wines there.  Other shops are recommended for unrivaled access to wines from Burdundy, Champagne and Languedoc and imported wines, too, from Germany, Hungary and Spain.

Follow the Wine

Although the idea that Paris is a wine tourist destination felt wrong at first, I can see the attraction. Follow the money, Deep Throat said. Follow the wine is good advice, too, and sometimes the best collections of wine are far from the sunny vineyard slopes (but close to where the money resides).

I am particularly interested in La Revue’s selection of wine tourism destinations outside of France. I expected to see Napa Valley on the list; Napa is the second largest tourist destination of any kind in California (after Disneyland) and so certainly the largest wine tourism center in the United States. But it didn’t make the La Revue cut.

Easy to understand, I suppose. When the French visit the United States they may not be thinking of wine. New York, Miami, Los Angeles and maybe Los Vegas — these are the most common European tourist targets I have heard. American wine country is a bit off that map. Or at least it is off La Revue’s map for 2012.

Porto in Portugal did make the list, however, along with Tuscany, Vienna, Geneva, the Rhine Valley and Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is a spectacularly good choice for wine tourism, of course, and any list of the top global wine destinations would have to include Tuscany and Germany.

But the competition for the final spots must have been pretty fierce and it would be interesting to know how Vienna and Geneva beat out New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina (not to mention Napa and Sonoma). There are many amazing wine tourist destinations and choosing just six outside of France (or choosing just 29 inside France) is necessarily difficulty and controversial.

Economic Impact

Wine tourism is a big industry here in the U.S. The Wine Institute estimates that 20.7 million tourists visited California wine regions in 2010 and spent $2.1 billion.  An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 by Stonebridge Research for the Napa Valley Vintners association estimated that wine tourism accounted for more than 10,000 jobs in Napa Valley alone (about as many workers as in all the wineries and vineyards combined) with total payroll of more than $250 million.

The direct wine tourism impact on the county was estimated at more than $700 million for 2008. The economic impact is spread over hundreds of small businesses — wineries, of course, wine tour companies, hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops and so forth.

Although it doesn’t make the French magazine’s list, Napa Valley is the industry leader in many ways. Surely many wine tourism programs around the world have been inspired by Robert Mondavi’s example, which from the start aimed to create an experience, not just a wine tasting or buying opportunity. It’s all about story-telling. Wineries use tourism as an opportunity to tell their stories, which visitors weave into their lifestyle narrative.

The Accidental Wine Tourist

The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine’s “wine tourism” entry suggests that Old World wine tourism development has been quite uneven. Wine tourists were long welcomed and accommodated in Germany’s Rhine and Mosel River Valleys, for example. But in France …

In France, wine tourism was often accidental. Northern Europeans heading for the sun for decades travelled straight through burgundy and the northern Rhône and could hardly fail to notice vineyards and the odd invitation ‘Dégustation–Vente’ (tasting–sale). (And it is true that a tasting almost invariably leads to a sale.) Wine producers in the Loire have long profited from their location in the midst of châteaux country, and within an easy Friday night’s drive of Paris.

Bordeaux was one of the last important French wine regions to realize its potential for wine tourism. The village of St-Emilion has had scores of wine shops and restaurants for decades but it was not until the late 1980s that the Médoc, the most famous cluster of wine properties in the world, had a hotel and more than one restaurant suitable for international visitors. Alexis Lichine was mocked for being virtually the only classed growth proprietor openly to welcome visitors.

Now, as this issue of La Revue indicates, the French are catching up!

There Must Be 50 Ways

So what is my bottom line? Wine is good, I tell my friends, but wine and a story is better. Wine tourism is about finding that story and making it first-person. There must be fifty ways to do this (La Revue gives us at least 35) and while visiting vineyards and wineries is the most obvious form of wine tourism I guess it isn’t the whole story.

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