Sue and I are back from the second United Nations World Tourism Organization global wine tourism conference in Mendoza, Argentina. It was an intense and interesting few days in a welcoming and dynamic part of the wine world. Here are a few things we think we learned at the conference. More to follow.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
Mendoza has come a long way as a wine tourist destination and they are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Unlike Napa Valley, which is next door to cosmopolitan San Francisco and fast-paced Silicon Valley, Mendoza takes a bit of effort to visit, so its emergence as a tourist hub, is noteworthy. We were impressed with the renovated airport, which features more flights to more places more often and will surely help boost wine tourism in the future.
When Sue and I visited Mendoza a few years ago we noted that it wasn’t very easy for an independent traveler to visit many of the wineries and this problem has been addressed in several ways. Some wineries have opened tasting rooms in the city, effectively bringing the vineyard to the tourist. Among the other efforts is a special hop-on hop-off bus that visits select wineries. How convenient! We also saw many tour operators who put together custom tours of wineries as well as the many other visitors options in region.
Mendoza has a lot to be proud of when it comes to wine tourism, but the many Argentine officials and local dignitaries who spoke at the conference’s first session perhaps could have shown greater restraint. Bad news: the talking went on so long that lunch, which was scheduled for around 2 pm, was actually served closer to 6 pm. Good news: our lunch began with deep-fried empanadas served hot and fresh outdoors in the Bodega Norton vineyard. Incredible.
Don’t Look Back
Gabriel Fidel is a sort of Renaissance man. Scholar, business leader, public servant, politician — he wears many hats in Mendoza and he has been influential in the rise of the wine and wine tourist sectors. His talk charted the evolution of wine tourism in this region and included a warning not to be too proud of the past, because the future holds more challenges.
Twenty years ago, Fidel explained. The challenge was to get wineries to accept visitors at all. They just get in the way! Okay, then once wineries got the messages about the importance of visitors there was a need for facilities, then services and trained staff, and then finally some attention to creating experiences beyond the typical tasting room offer. Wine tourism does not take place in a vacuum, so wineries need to match the programs in other wine regions and take into account the level of service that tourist expect in non-wine settings, too.
Now the challenge, Fidel said, is to move ahead again rather than just taking satisfaction in past achievements. Don’t look back, Satchel Paige said, something might be gaining on you. And in this competitive environment, it is gaining fast.
Wine Tourism and Sustainable Development
My contribution to the conference was a short speech on how wine tourism can be a tool for sustainable regional development. Done right, I argued, wine tourism can benefit people, planet and profit. Done wrong … well, there can be real problems. I cited specific success stories as well as critical issues, highlighting the strategies needed to anticipate and address problems.
One journalist who attended the conference wrote to me to say that she hadn’t really thought much about the impact that tourism can have on local people and the world they live in and now she could appreciate its importance. I guess my message got through.
We visited one winery where our guide quite unintentionally revealed how wine tourism transforms local communities. His father was in the construction business and, were it not for winery development, that’s what he would be doing, too.
But now the opportunities are in wine tourism and hospitality more than traditional occupations such as construction. His family struggles a bit to understand the changing local labor scene (and the changing nature of work itself) and how exactly he can earn a living drinking wine, as they see it, and talking to strangers like us all day rather than working hard to make, build, or grow things.
Mendoza to Moldova
The transformative impact of wine tourism will be tested in Moldova, which was named as the host nation of the 2018 UNWTO global wine tourism conference. Moldova is probably the most wine-dependent country on the planet. Wine is the largest export category and the country is working very hard to open up markets in the west and in Asia and to reduce its long-standing dependence on the unreliable Russian market for wine sales.
Selling more wine at higher prices would be great for Moldova, but wine tourism is perhaps strategically more important because of its ability to increase rural incomes outside of wine production and sales. Wine tourism done right stimulates the hospitality industry with potential impacts on crafts and other local industries. Wine tourism has great potential to draw visitors to Moldova and stimulate rural development.
Hosting an international conference like this is a big, expensive job. Good luck to our Moldovan friends as they plan next year’s events.
Sue took the photos above — the view from Bodega Moneviejo in the Uco valley and the delicious late-lunch empanadas at Bodega Norton.