UNESCO World Heritage Wine Regions: Benefits & Costs

Last week I talked about the rise of UNESCO World Heritage-designated wine regions. There are now more than a dozen wine regions that have received the UNESCO imprimatur — Champagne and Burgundy are the latest additions — and more than 30 with some wine connection (see list below) with more applications are in the pipeline.

I am not opposed to wine regions being highlighted this way — in fact I kind of like the idea — I just wonder how UNESCO designation fits into the already complicated geography of wine. I ended the column with a series of questions that I will try to answer this week.

What are the costs and benefits of World Heritage status?

A 2007 UK government report outlines the costs of and benefits from seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (you can find a pdf of the report here). The costs, it concludes, can be substantial. The application process alone can be long and expensive (this is not a surprise to anyone in the U.S. who has been through our AVA application process lately).

A recent New York Times article about Burgundy’s UNESCO designation notes that the organizers assembled a team of 30 specialists to make their case and published a 600-page scientific and historical report in both English and French. Once approved, there are of course additional costs of managing the program. The UK study estimated that the costs (back in 2007) could be more than £100,000 to make the bid and possibly much more than this on a yearly basis for program management. Obviously someone has to come up with funds to finance all of this, so UNESCO designation is a major commitment.

What are the benefits? The UK study divides them into potential economic benefits and potential social benefits. From an economic standpoint, being a UNESCO site opens doors to partnerships with other organizations that might provide funding and support and is also a useful tool in promoting tourism. Being on the UNESCO list is like having an extra star in the tourist guidebook rating, I guess.

One of my university students reports that her thesis fieldwork on national parks in Southeast Asia reflected the UNESCO effect. UNESCO-designated parks had better facilities, more tourists and more government support (she also found them to be more commercialized) compared with national parks lacking the UNESCO imprimatur.

The non-economic benefits can be substantial, starting with conservation, regeneration and education benefits (which I think are the main aim of many of the programs) and moving to civic pride and social capital (“social unity and cohesion” according to the study), which are harder to measure but still important.

Interestingly, the New York Times article lists different principal benefits for Champagne and Burgundy. For Burgundy, we are told, the point is to make a statement that fine wine comes from specific terroirs, of which the newly protected Burgundian vineyard climats are among the world’s most famous.  For Champagne, on the other hand, the payoff comes in additional protection of intellectual property rights — the Champagne brand itself. To the extent that the climats are closely identified with Burgundy’s brand, I suppose the two cases are not so very different after all.

Why is there a need for an additional regional wine designation?

The first appellations in France were essentially defensive mechanisms. Defense first against wines from outside a region being passed off as a local product and then defense against local producers who were debasing the region’s collective brand through over-cropping, poor wine-making, etc.  Appellation regulations had economic value first and then provided social benefits.

Here in the U.S. we have watched AVAs proliferate to the point where most of them have little specific economic brand value. Most AVAs with a few exceptions are probably best understood as tools of regional identity not as valuable brands. They are expensive tools due to the high application costs, but they are worth something in today’s marketplace because for some consumers today the lack of a geographical designation puts a wine into a lower generic class. 

Seen in this economic light, the UNESCO designation creates a sort of super appellation that rises above the cluttered landscape while at the same  time potentially providing those conservation, regeneration and education benefits.

The creation of a super league of some sort might not be necessary, but perhaps it is inevitable (in the same way that the creation of the UEFA Champions League in soccer was probably inevitable).  The fact that the league might ultimately be based on UNESCO protocols that explicitly privilege history and culture as opposed to auction valuations or famous critic ratings, which focus on different factors, is what makes it really interesting to me.

Should your wine region look into this?

When I first read about the UNESCO designation I thought that Napa Valley was an obvious candidate. But if increased wine tourism is one of the benefits, then I wonder Napa really works. Seems like if Napa is having trouble working out a balance between wine tourism and what many see as conflicts with local lifestyles. The additional attention from UNESCO status might compound rather than resolve local tensions unless local pride somehow rose to bridge the tourism divide.

Ultimately, looking at the examples of Champagne and Burgundy, I think each region has to make its own evaluation of the costs and benefits and decide if gains in terms of profit, identity or philosophy are worth the obvious costs. It seems to me that the conservation and regeneration benefits (or lack thereof) may tip the balance one way to another. I’m interested in hearing what others have to say.

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Congratulations to those regions that have achieved UNESCO designation and to those who receive it in the future.  Despite my grinchy “dismal scientist” focus on costs and benefits, I am glad that UNESCO celebrates the natural and cultural wonders of the world and proud that wine regions are included on the list.

Here’s a list of vineyard-related World Heritage sites as tabulated by worldheritagesite.org

 

The Rise of the UNESCO World Heritage Vineyard

“International Designation is Sweet Victory for Burgundy”  is the title of the August 17, 2015 New York Times article by Elaine Sciolino, which tells the story of how Burgundian vineyards received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. “Burgundian terroir and climats” joins “Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars” on the 2015 UNESCO induction list.

There seems to be a movement among some wine regions to seek the UNESCO designation in addition to their regional appellation.  During our visit to the Italian northeast last year we learned that Conegliano-Valdobbiadene had applied for UNESCO status for their dramatic and beautiful hillside vineyards. I saw that as a special case, bow I am starting to think that UNESCO-designation is a broader trend that deserves more attention.

A to Z: 1031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The UNESCO World Heritage Site program has grown and changed since it was initiated in 1978.  There are currently a total of 1031 UNESCO-designated properties in 163 countries around the world. About 80 percent are designated cultural sites and 20 percent are natural heritage locations.  Forty-eight are listed as “in danger.” Here is a list of the 1978 first group of UNESCO sites. You can see a strong preservation motive here.

Aachen Cathedral
City of Quito
Galápagos Islands
Historic Centre of Kraków
Island of Gorée
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Mesa Verde National Park
Nahanni National Park
Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
Simien National Park
Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines
Yellowstone National Park

and here are the locations on the 2015 list

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System
Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
Baekje Historic Areas
Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (Al-Maghtas)
Blue and John Crow Mountains
Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars
Christiansfeld, a Moravian Church Settlement
Climats, terroirs of Burgundy
Cultural Landscape of Maymand
Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape
Ephesus
Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape
Great Burkhan Khaldun Mountain and its surrounding sacred landscape
Necropolis of Bet She’arim: A Landmark of Jewish Renewal
Rjukan–Notodden Industrial Heritage Site
Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia
San Antonio Missions
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining
Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus
Susa
The Forth Bridge
The par force hunting landscape in North Zealand
Tusi Sites

World Heritage Vineyards and Wine Regions

A surprising (to me) number of these sites have wine connections. Here’s a list of wine-related UNESCO properties and the year each was added to the list based on my quick survey of 1031 sites on the list. There may be some that I have over-looked — please use the Comments section below to let everyone know of additions to the list.

  • Burgundy terroir and climats (2015)
  • Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars (2015)
  • Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir (2014)
  • Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato (2014)
  • Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces (2007)
  • Bordeaux, Port of the Moon (2007)
  • Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture (2004)
  • South Africa Cape Floral Region Protected Areas (2004)
  • Upper Middle Rhine Valley (2002)
  • Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape (2002)
  • Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
  • The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes (2000)
  • Wachau Cultural Landscape (2000)
  • Historic Centre of Oporto (1996)

UNESCO and Wine: Some Unanswered Questions

The vineyards and wine regions on the UNESCO list so far are certainly important, but it is easy to think of other wine regions around the world that have special properties and that are not yet on the list.  I wonder where this movement will lead? The rise of the UNESCO World Heritage Vineyard project prompts a number of interesting questions.

What are the costs and benefits of World Heritage status?

Why, when wine has appellations, AVAs and Geographical Indicators galore, is there a need for an additional designation?

Should your wine region look into UNESCO designation?

Answers to these questions and more in the next Wine Economist column.

Murmurings: What Can Wine Tourism Learn from Food?

murmurResearch tells us that affluent travelers (and many of modest means, too) increasingly choose their destinations with food and wine in mind. I have several friends who are addicted to the Food Network and the Travel Channel, for example, and seek out the places they have seen on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Bizarre Foods and other shows when they are on the road.

Wine and Food Tourism

Wine tourism and food tourism are increasingly intertwined and, although I didn’t see it coming, I recently found myself caught up in that mix. It started with an email from the editors at Murmur, which is a new website and app that aims to help guide foodies and winos to interesting spots in different cities in the U.S. and around the world. I was asked to write up a profile of my town and it seemed like an interesting challenge, so I jumped in.

Murmur’s focus is really on food and nightlife and most of the city guides available so far are written by food writers, bloggers and experts. But wine is not ignored, with Alder Yarrow’s guide to San Francisco, for example, and Alice Feiring’s take on New York City. Steve Heimoff wrote about Oakland and “terroirist” David White about Washington DC. I thought briefly about writing about the culinary scene in Seattle, since it is such a great food town, but my friend  Jameson Fink had already done a great job there, so I decided to stay true to my roots and profile Tacoma,”The City of Destiny,” a classic “second city” just thirty miles south of the Emerald City (as Seattle is known is known hereabouts).

You can follow this link to my quirky guide to Tacoma. The format called for a brief introduction and then a guide to a “perfect day” in Tacoma followed by specific recommendations in various categories that the Murmur editors provided. I invite you to check out my recommendation and those of the other authors.

Looking for Lessons

Murmur is an interesting concept — very personal and quite different from Yelp, TriipAdvisor and other websites that sort of crowd-source recommendations. I wonder — are there any websites or apps that do for wine tourism what Murmur hopes to do for food?

I know there are plenty of apps and sites out there and lots of information, too. I’m just curious if we are playing in the same league as food tourism of if maybe there’s room to grow? I’d encourage readers to use the Comments section to share particularly effective wine tourism apps and sites and perhaps also to identify spaces that need filling in this regard.

This raises a more general question about what wine can learn from food. I have written before that food is way ahead of wine in terms of media and popular culture profile and there are good reasons for this. We live in the age of celebrity, for example, and while there are many celebrity chefs that  are known outside the food industry, I wonder how many winemakers are well known outside the narrow world of wine?

Maybe we need to try to learn from the success of the food scene since consumer attitudes and expectations about wine are not shaped by wine alone but also by their experiences with other products. Celebrity is one side of this, but certainly not the whole story.

What can wine learn from food? A lot, I think, and we need to get with it especially since food has already appropriated some of wine’s mystique by embracing terroir through farm-to-fork, single origin and other characteristics that we once thought of as our own but that are now common culinary currency. The environment is very competitive and, as some of us have said recently, wine is in danger of losing ground if we don’t up our game. Learning from the success of others is a good way to begin.

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Thanks to the folks at Murmur for giving me this opportunity. It was a lot of fun to write about food and tourism. But I suspect that this is not my comparative advantage, so I’ll probably stick to wine economics in the future!

MacPhail Wine Lounge & The Barlow: A Sebastopol Terroirist Destination

We were in Northern California a few weeks ago and decided to try to break away from the strong gravitational pull of Napa Valley to explore the terroir away from the Highway 29 corridor. We were looking for wines that could capture a sense of place — and we found them — but we also stumbled on an exciting wine-food-tourism cluster called The Barlow hidden in plain sight in Sebastopol, just off Highway 12 west of Santa Rosa. Lots of interesting wine economics on display! Here is a rambling report of our trip.

A Terroirst Tour

Our terroirist tour took us first to Pride Mountain, a fascinating winery located high on Spring Mountain (Pride is the family name of the owners). Some of the vineyards are on the Napa side of the AVA border and some are on the Sonoma side — the labels tell you the percentages of each. Interestingly, to meet certain fiscal rules, there are actually two wineries — one in Napa and the other in Sonoma with a line in the concrete crush pad to separate them. The wines are  blended only after they’ve first been accounted for in their home AVA. Wonderful tour, very interesting wines, beautiful location and bizarre regulations!

Once across the mountains in Sonoma we headed for DeLoach and Gary Farrell, where we tasted a number of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. Both these wineries have changed ownership in the course of their existence — brands change hands frequently these days — and both seem to be in good hands now. Boisset has converted the DeLoach estate vineyard to biodynamic viticulture. Gary Farrell has no vineyards of its own, but sources grapes from a number of excellent growers.

We had one more stop on our list: MacPhail wines, another terroirist Pinot producer. The wines were wonderful, but they weren’t all that we discovered.

MacPhail Family Wines

MacPhail Family Wines has a roundabout history. It started when the people at Hess Family Wineries decided they wanted to develop a brand to highlight single vineyard California Pinot Noir. Hess President Tom Selfridge asked grower Jim Pratt to handle the vineyard side of things and to recommend a winemaker, who turned out to be James MacPhail. For a while the Hess wines, produced under the Sequana brand, and MacPhail’s own wines were made in MacPhail’s Healdsburg facility.

Eventually it became clear that the two projects — MacPhail’s own and his wines for Hess — were going in the same direction, so Hess put its backing into the MacPhail label. The wines, mainly from the Green Valley and Russian River Valley areas (with one wine sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands down south) had a real sense of time and place.  Our favorite was the 2012 Toulouse Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. Delicious!

Based on what we learned at MacPhail on this trip and our stop at Glen Carlou in South Africa in January, I’d say that Hess does an exceptional job of using the resources of a large company to unleash terroirist potential on a smaller scale. Hess makes wine on four continents — soon to be just three when they complete the sale of Peter Lehmann to the Casella family of Yellow Tail fame.

The Barlow Project

Hess and MacPhail were looking for a site for a tasting room facility when they learned of The Barlow  project in nearby Sebastopol. Located at a crossroads on the site of an old apple processing facility (Sonoma is almost as famous for apples as for wine in some circles), The Barlow was conceived as a wine-food-arts cluster in a series of cannery-style buildings.  It’s a farm-to-fork and grape-to-glass kind of vibe rendered even more authentic by the agricultural heritage of the place.

Cult Pinot maker Kosta Browne (now owned by the same people who operate Gary Farrell, The Vincraft Group) was one of the anchor tenants of the project, with the winery spread over three buildings. La Follette’s tasting room is located here as well as the MacPhail Tasting Lounge.  The Barlow project also includes a craft brewery and a distillery (now they need a cider maker, don’t you think?). There are shops, a market, street fairs and a number of eateries.

We were particularly impressed by Zazu Kitchen + Farm, which is a sort of temple to pork products and local wines, featuring products from Black Pig Meat Company. Do pork and Pinot make a good pair? Oh, yes!

An Economic Development Model

How do you use wine to revitalize a run down area? How do you use wine tourism as a tool of economic development? These are questions that I am asked fairly frequently. The Barlow shows one approach that, while not easily replicated everywhere can still provide lessons.

The first key is the cluster approach used here. Not one winery but three, building some critical mass The second is that it’s not just wine, but wine, food, art and so forth. The third is that while these experiences can be designed and created, they should not be manufactured — an element of authenticity is surely needed. Each of The Barlow’s tenants– including MacPhail and Zazu — has the quality to stand on its own, but like a good wine blend the whole of the community that has been created is greater than the sum of its parts.

As you can tell, our Napa-Sonoma visit was a success. We found the terroirist wines we were looking for and we found something more in The Barlow.

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Thanks to the people at Pride Mountain, Gary Farrell, DeLoach and MacPhail for their hospitality. Thanks as well to my former student Grant who welcomed us at the Adobe Road winery tasting room on Sonoma square. We loved their distinctive wines, including especially the Kemp Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Viognier. Special thanks to Lowell, Dorothy, Allan, PJ and Holden for their assistance.

Valpolicella: Time for Wine Tourism to take Center Stage

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Stunning view from the terraced vineyards at Terre di Leone

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Valpolicella is well known for its great wines — Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso della Valpolicella and of course Amarone. (It should also be known for its sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, but that’s another story.)

But what about wine tourism? Sue and I were guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio earlier this month and one of our tasks was get a sense of Valpolicella as a wine tourist destination using a new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices).  Here is a brief report.

There’s an App for That!

Whenever I asked the winemakers we met if wine tourism was an important part of their business the answer was “yes!” but I think it is fair to say that for many of the actual tourists wine is at best a secondary reason for their visit.

The fact is that most tourists come to this part of Italy for non-wine reasons — for the history, culture and opera of Verona to the east, for example, or the resorts of Lake Garda to the west. Lying between these two attractive poles, Valpolicella is the perfect “day out” diversion (especially if it is a rainy day as has too often been the case in 2014) but not always the primary destination.

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Postmodern meets tradition at Zymé

Come for Opera, Stay for Wine

Come for the beach or opera, stay for the wine! That could be Valpolicella’s wine tourism motto, but it would be selling the region short. What do dedicated wine tourists look for? Well, these days they want the complete experience — the wine and wineries, of course, plus beautiful scenery, great food, comfortable lodgings and that something extra to tell their friends back home about. Valpolicella would seem to tick each of these boxes.

The vineyard scenery is certainly spectacular — I really wasn’t prepared for the beautiful vistas.  What a stunning setting! A great opportunity for fit cyclists with a nose for good wine or anyone willing to pull off the road and take in the panorama.

The wineries we visited using the Consorzio’s app showed the great variety of experiences available, which ranged from the super-modern architecture at Monteci to the classic and traditional at Valentina Cubi (one of our favorite stops).  The sense of history was particularly strong at Santa Sofia, which is located in a villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.  You cannot dig much deeper into the soul of the Venteo  than that!

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Tradition at Santa Sofia

Zymé, Celestino Gaspari’s  ambitious winery in Pietro in Carlano  deftly balanced the very old and the very new. The winery building features cutting edge architecture — see the photo taken looking out from the structure towards the nearby hillside vineyards. Wow!

The Zymé  cellar and caves are carved into the hillside and touring them gives a sense of both history and nature. One of the best surprises was in the cavern than has become the working part of the winery. A spring that was discovered during construction was incorporated into the design and you can actually look down dozens of feet into the crevasse that the water has carved out over the years. A stunning sensory experience (and great for the humidity needed for barrel storage).

Beyond the Wine

Wine tourists need a place to stay and there seem to be many attractive options (this part of the Consorzio  app is still under development). Although we stayed in a basic business hotel on this trip, we encountered a number of options, including very appealing apartments at Valentina  Cubi.

If you want luxury, well there seem to be a number of five star experiences available. SalvaTerra’s beautiful estate includes vineyards, the winery, a small hotel and what must be a fine restaurant (judging from the number of chefs we saw working the kitchen as we passed by).

We have no doubt about the food at Villa Cordevigo  since we were fortunate to have dinner at this estate that includes the Villabella winery, its vineyards, a fantastic hotel and spa and the sorts of amenities that make you want to linger forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us as we looked out over a garden to the pool and the vineyards j8ust beyond with a full moon in the distance.

It’s the Food, Dummy

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Foodie attraction: Cappelletti di coda, fonduta di Parmigiano, ristretto al Cordevigo rosso at Villa Cordevigo, served with Villa Cordevigo Rosso 2007

People talk about coming to Italy for the art and architecture, but let me tell you the truth. It’s the food! And we were fortunate to sample many typical dishes of the regional cuisine and they are worth the effort to seek out. Typical is an interesting word in this context — you see it everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing. Here in the U.S. “typical” is sometimes a term of derision — Big Macs are “typical” fast food, for example. Ordinary. Unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. That’s typical for us.

In Italy, however, typical means “true to type” or authentic. And that’s why we Americans go gaga over Italian food — the authenticity just blows us away. And the authentic or typical dishes of Valpolicella, many prepared with the wines themselves, are enough to make any foodie go gaga. We enjoyed great meals at the Villa Cordevigo,  Ristorante La Divina  (overlooking Garda from high on a hill), Locanda 800 and the Enoteca Della Valpolicella.

We also appreciated the lunches that several wineries put together for us including a wonderful (typical!) meal of local meats and cheeses with polenta  at Scriani, a satisfying buffet at Santa Sofia and a rather elaborate multi-course feast of typical dishes at the Cantina Valpolicella Negrar.  All the food was wonderful — the meats and cheeses at Cesari  and the completely addictive “crumb cake” we had with Recioto at Secondo Marco. Foodie paradise? You be the judge. And great wines, too.

That Something Extra

Valpolicella seems to have all the elements of a great wine tourism experience and I think the Consorzio’s  app ties things together into a functional package.  It will be even more useful when it has time to fill out with more wineries, restaurants and hotels.

Is the app alone enough to bring Valpolicella to center stage? Of course not. Some of the wineries obviously embrace wine tourism more completely than others, for example. It is important that three or four true “destination” wineries emerge that will make it easy for wine tourists to see that a two-day or longer visit can be fashioned that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm —  with dozens of other wineries providing rich diversity (and reasons to return again and again) as happens in Napa, for example. And finally there must be even closer ties among the elements of the hospitality sector — wine, food, tourism and lodgings — which is not always easy to achieve.

It takes a village to build a wine route. But all the pieces are there and the app is a good way to bring them together.

But what about that “something extra” I mentioned earlier.  What does Valpolicella offer that will push it over the top? Well, the towns and villages have the churches, squares, museums and villas that Italian wine tourists expect — it takes only a little effort to seek them out and I must confess that I actually enjoy the “small moments”  more than the three-star attractions, so this suits me very well.

But maybe I am making this too hard. What’s that something special? Maybe it’s the chance to tack an evening in Verona or a day on Lake Garda on to your Valpolicella wine tour experience?  Perhaps its time for the wine tail to wag the Veneto  tourist dog and not the other way around! (Gosh, I wonder how that will sound in Italian?) Food for thought!

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This is the second in a series of reports on our Veneto wine tour. Come back next week for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Valpolicella wine industry.


Here’s a musical tribute to the merry band of wine bloggers on our Valpolicella tour.

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Mauro Fermariello has created a beautiful video of our Valpolicella wine blogger tour, which can be found in his website, www.winestories.it .

Here’s That Rainy Day: Wine Touring in Porto

I had one free day during my recent visit to Porto and as much as I wanted to go up the Douro to the vineyards, a  torrential downpour kept me in the city. So I set out to see what sort of wine tourism experience Porto had to offer and I learned a lot. Here is my report.

Sign of The Don

There is much to see and do in Porto itself, but serious wine tourists need to cross the bridge spanning the Douro and enter Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port houses are found lined up along the river and up the hillside.

The riverside was brightly decorated — a welcome touch given the weather — and featured many of  the small boats that traditionally transported the wines from the vineyard areas down to the city, where they are aged and blended and sent to market. The wines are moved by more modern means today, although there is still a gala race, with much honor to the Port house with the winning boat.

My first stop was Quinta do Noval, where I took refuge from the rain and tasted through the wines while drying out. I have to say that there cannot be a better way to warm up than this! No tour or museum or sophistical wine tourist presentation at this stop — just nice wines, friendly and well-informed staff.

My next stop was Sandeman, one of the oldest and best known Port houses.  You see “The Don,” the famous Sandeman logo, everywhere in Porto. Founded in 1790 by George Sandeman, a Scottish wine merchant, Sandeman has interests both in Portugal (Port) and Spain (Sherry). The Don’s distinctive outfit pays tribute to both sides of the business — the Spanish hat paired with the cape worn by university students then and  now in Porto (I saw them myself on exam day). If you thought the logo was a tribute to Zoro, think again.

Tree Ages of Port

The wine tourism experience at Sandeman begins as you enter the house, which feels and smells exactly like what it is — a great old warehouse where wines wait patiently in their barrels, often for decades, for the moment when they will be bottled and go to market. Very atmospheric, immediately communicating a sense of time and place (much like the vintage tv advertisement below).

The first stop once you’ve come through the great doors is a colorful museum dedicated to Sandeman’s great success in branding and marketing. The Don must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable trademarks in wine and the museum tells the icon’s story from the first images in 1928 through the present day. It’s an art exhibit at heart, but with a commercial agenda and it is interesting to see how the images and messages evolved over the years.

Next came the tour through the big building. The young woman who guided us was dressed as The Don, of course, but she was more professor than student as she made sure, though example and strategic repetition, that we all understood the nature of the different types of Port — Vintage, LBV, Tawny and so on — how they are made and how they are best consumed. She was very skilled at bringing her students into the story.

Wine Tourism Keys

Walking through the barrel rooms was like walking back in history (which is what we were doing, I suppose), but this is a working operation not a museum and we would have seen the cellar hands going about their business if it hadn’t been Sunday. The tour ended with an opportunity to taste a couple of wines at long tables adjacent to the cellar door sales room and gift shop.

I spent some time talking with a family from Tokyo who were making a European tour and had spent three days in Porto, enjoying experiences like this. Each of the Port houses seems to tell its story in a different way, some focusing on their history, others on the production process. Many, like Sandeman and Graham’s, offer a variety of tasting experiences in addition to the basic tour. Port pairing seminars (cheese, chocolate) are popular, for example, as well as opportunities to taste Tawny Port blends of 10, 20 and 40 years or more. Something for everyone and a satisfying experience even on a sunny day, I’ll bet.

What should a wine tourism experience do? I think of wine as a relationship business and a winery or tasting room visit succeeds when it helps establish new relationships and deepen or renews existing ones. From the tourists’ point of view, it should be enjoyable and informative — and of course offer the opportunity to taste new wines or to share familiar ones with traveling companions and provide stories to tell the folks back home.

From a producer viewpoint, the goals are to get visitors to slow down and absorb the message and this of course requires that there actually be a coherent message presented (too often it seems the objective is simply to attract numbers of visitors). Cellar door sales and wine club memberships are obviously important, too, but only come if the first goals are met.

The Sandeman experience and others like it in Porto succeed from both standpoints. Certainly there was clear and coherent messaging on my tour — about both Port the category, Ports (the various types of Port wines) and the Sandeman brand in particular. (How can you miss that when your tour guide is costumed like the company logo?) When it works it really works. No wonder the major Port houses have invested so much in wine tourism as a way develop their international brands.

Little Frenchie: A Culinary Side-Trip

Soon it was lunchtime and I could not really expect to top the meal I had the day before at Vinum, the great restaurant up the hill at Graham’s, so instead I went for the distinctive meal of Porto: the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie” sandwich.

My Francesinha started with thin layers of cheese on the plate, which was topped with white bread and then roast pork, sliced ham, a bit of chorizo, more cheese, another slice of bread, more cheese, and then a thin reddish beer-based sauce (think enchilada sauce and you will be in the ballpark).

Because I apparently am  not a very good judge of these things, I went over the top and ordered the deluxe version which added a fried egg and a plate of french fries. It was wonderful in the way that Canada’s famous poutaine (french fries, cheese curd, gravy) can be wonderful and I didn’t have room for anything else (except a little Port) for the rest of the day.

I had a great time, learned a lot, met some interesting people. I promise I will get to the Douro vineyards next time, but I wouldn’t miss touring the Port houses for anything.  The variety of experiences available if you visit several houses provides something for everyone, from Port novice to seasoned connoisseur.

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Thanks to George Sandeman for his hospitality while I was in Porto and his help with this project. I found this YouTube video that captures a bit of the Francesinha experience. Would I eat it again? Yes, but I’d choose the traditional beer to go with it rather than the red wine I enjoyed at my riverfront restaurant, which claimed to have the best Franceshina in town.

Groot Expectations: Is South Africa #1 for Wine Tourism?

P1070944Sue and I returned from our visit to South Africa with many strong impressions and great memories.  Maybe the single thing that struck us the most is this: the Cape Winelands are a wonderful wine tourism destination. The best we have ever visited? Perhaps!

And this is important because wine tourism is now widely seen as playing a critical role in the industry. It is not just a way to sell wine at the cellar door (with direct sales margins), although that can be important to the bottom line. And it is not just a way to fill hotel beds and restaurant tables, although that is clearly important from an economic development standpoint.

A Sophisticated Industry

Wine tourists are also wine ambassadors, who carry a positive message back home with them. They sell the place, the people, the food, and of course the wine. That’s why Australia is betting so heavily on wine and food tourism to turn around its image on international markets. My friend Dave Jefferson of Silkbush Mountain Vineyards has recently called for more attention to promoting wine tourism in South Africa and I think he’s on the right track.

The South African wine tourism industry is very sophisticated as you might expect with people like Ken Forrester and Kevin Arnold involved. Forrester has made his restaurant 96 Winery Road a key element in his winery’s business plan and Arnold says that he sees filling hotel beds as a primary objective.  If the hotels are full of wine tourists, he is justifiably confident that his Waterford Winery will get its share of the business. They are two of a growing list of South African wine producers who have invested in the wine tourism strategy.

The variety of wine tourism experiences is striking ranging from vineyard safaris at Waterford to a stately home visit at Antonij Rupert to luxurious spa facilities at Spier. We loved the lush gardens at Van Loveren in Robertson and the warm Klein Karoo feeling at Joubert-Tradauw in Barrydale.  The opportunity to sip Riesling during a children’s theater performance in the forest at the Paul Cluver Estate in Elgin was memorable.  There is always something new around the corner.

Our photo collection from this trip seems to have an equal number of images of beautiful scenery and mouth-watering plates of food. I think wine tourists will be struck both by the physical beauty of the Cape Winelands and by the high quality restaurants that a great many of the wineries feature.Jordan lunch

A  Sticky Experience

The splendid winery restaurant opportunities in South Africa may come as a shock to many Americans who are used to touring at home since in the U.S. the rule seems to be that food and wine should not mix – at least not at wineries. That’s wrong, of course, but the result of America’s archaic alcohol regulations.

I think the restaurant at Domaine Chandon may be the only one of its kind in Napa Valley, for example. And of course in some states including New York wine sales in supermarket settings are forbidden. Wine and food — a dangerous combination!

One key element of the wine tourist business is to create an experience that makes visitors slow down, stop and take a a little time to let the impressions sink in – a “sticky” experience if you know what I mean. Vineyard and winery tours can do this and various sorts of specialized tasting and pairings experiences work, too, but maybe nothing is quite as effective as the opportunity have a great meal  in a fabulous setting along with the wine you have just sampled.

The list of great winery restaurants in South Africa is very long – some of the highlights from our brief visit are Jordan (where Sue enjoyed the beet salad above), Diemersdal,  Stark-Condé, Lanzerac, Glen Carlou, La Motte, Kleine Zalze, Fairview and Durbanville Hills (the view shown in the photo at the top of the page  is of Cape Town and Table Mountain at sunset as seen from the Durbanville Hills restaurant).

So what are the keys to being a wine tourist in South Africa? Well, first you have to get there, of course, and I think many people wish that there were more direct flights to Cape Town. Our SEA-LHR-CPT route on British Airways was long and tedious as you might imagine, but pleasant and efficient by contemporary air travel standards.

Wine Tourist Checklist

Once you are on the ground, will  need a couple of essentials. Here is my short list.

First, a rental car with a GPS unit. You can do a little wine touring without a car, of course, booking one of the many day tours out of Cape Town. The historic Groot Constantia winery is actually on one of the routes of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus that shuttles visitors to all the main scenic location. But renting a car opens many more doors. The roads in the Cape wine region are mainly quite good and and the region itself is fairly compact, so driving is certainly an attractive option.

South Africa drives on the same side of the road as Britain and Australia but the adjustment if you have to make it is relatively easy. You will need the GPS because many of the wineries are a bit off the beaten path and while GPS units all have their quirks, they are extremely useful here.

Second, buy a Platter’s Guide as soon as you hit the ground in Cape Town. You can get a physical copy or a digital subscription, but be sure to get a Platter’s Guide.  Most people will buy this guide for its ratings and recommendations of the current release wines of just about every South African producer, which we found very helpful even if subjective ratings need to be used with care. But the wine ratings are not the whole story.

I especially like Platter’s  for its detailed factual information about each winery, which I see as a necessary prelude to a successful visit — plus the practical contact and visit details, including GPS coordinates. Many wineries are on unnamed roads, so it is necessary to have the latitude and longitude coordinates and Platter’s data is very up to date.

These resources, plus a sense of adventure and a curious nature, are the essential equipment for a successful South African wine tourist trip (common sense helps too — as the sign at Groot Constantia says, don’t feed the baboons!).

If you would like to go beyond the basics, I heartily recommend Tim James’s excellent 2013 book Wines of the New South Africa, which provides more depth and detail concerning the history of South Africa wines, the grape varieties, the regions and many of the wineries. I studied this book before our trip and the effort paid off.

I love maps, but I could not find a wine atlas of South Africa here in the U.S. As we were leaving the Cape area Cobus Joubert gave us a lovely Cape Winelands wall map that he has produced and I wish I knew about it before we came. It is an impressive and beautiful document with a map of the wine regions on one side and basic information about the wineries (including those critical GPS coordinates) on the other. Not essential, I suppose, but very useful and very desirable and it is a great addition to my collection.

What if you can’t travel to South Africa? Then I guess they have to get their wines to you. I’ll talk about the new wave of export plans that will make South African wines more widely available in the U.S. market next week.

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P1070630I am known to love the braai, South Africa’s national feast. Meat grilled over wood coals, salads and veggies, wine and friends. Can’t beat it. Nothing brings South Africans together like a braai.

Special thanks to Albert and Martin at Durbanville Hills, Meyer at Joubert-Tradauw and Johann at Kanonkop for inviting us to join their braais!

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