Wine Tourism Grows Up: A Visit to Washington’s Chateau Ste Michelle

chateau-ste-michelleI am in Kennewick, Washington today and tomorrow to speak at the Washington Winegrowers Association 2018 Convention & Trade Show.  Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts about wine premiumization in the “State of the Industry” session, but today’s focus is wine tourism. I’ll give a global perspective on wine tourism as part of a program on  “The Business Side of Your Tasting Room.”

Grape Expectations?

Increasingly the tasting room’s business is not just pouring samples, selling wine, and promoting wine club memberships. Although winery visitors clearly expect to taste wines and perhaps tour the winery or walk vineyard paths, they often come expecting (or hoping for) something more.  That’s because sophisticated winery visitors don’t only visit wineries. They have many interests and develop expectations based upon their broader experiences. Wineries that want to attract these visitors need to step up to meet rising expectations.

Wine tourists and their rising standards have always been a priority at Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington state’s largest wine producer. When the current Woodinville production facility was constructed in 1976 the choice was made to locate it close to the Seattle population center, a few hours’ drive from the vineyards on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. The winery was built on the grounds of Hollywood Farm, the old Stimson Estate, and the main building was designed to closely resemble an iconic French chateau.

“The Chateau,” as we call it hereabouts, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and used that opportunity to give its visitor center a major renovation. Sue and I first visited this facility shortly after it opened in the late 1970s, when it was one of the most welcoming wine tourism destinations we found. But as the years have flown by a lot has changed. The number of visitors has increased and they have become more numerous, more diverse in terms of their wine knowledge  and also more sophisticated in terms of their expectations for a tourism experience. Inevitably, the tasting room itself had to change, too. And it has.

When I say that the wine tourism experience here has “grown up” I mean more than that it has matured and is now able to accommodate more visitors. One element of the growing up is to accommodate more diversity of tourist expectations and experiences.  The result is a textured program with many layers of opportunities.

For first time visitors, for example, the free (free!) tour and tasting is available as it has been here for as long as I can remember.  Visitors can upgrade their experience at the tasting room bar, where a variety of elevated tasting options are available for $10 to $15 per person — a bargain by Napa Valley standards.r-919411-1320418583-jpeg

Are You Experienced?

Winery visits in the old days were focused on tasting (and hopefully buying the wines) — a transactions approach. Now the state of the art is about relationships and creating opportunities to draw visitors more closely into the winery and its story so that they become both long term patrons and active brand ambassadors. I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines about the huge variety of experiences on offer at the Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery and Chateau Ste Michelle has programs to match.

The Chateau Ste Michelle wine experience menu includes the above mentioned tours and tastings and moves on to a special small group single-vineyard and limited release tasting ($30 per person or $25 for winery club members), Cabernet-themed food and wine pairing experience ($100/$85), a”Sensory Sojourn” workshop ($65/$55), and a wine blending experience ($125/$95).

Small groups can also arrange to attend a sparkling wine seminar and tasting with food pairings ($55/$45), an opportunity to taste older vintage of Washington Bordeaux blends and Riesling wines ($55/$45), or grab a chance to learn how to blind taste like a Master Sommelier ($125/$95).

It is also possible to schedule visits to the Col Solare Bottega, where Red Mountain wines  produced in partnership with Tuscany’s Antinori family can be sampled, or a visit to the Enoteca, which highlights wines from Ste Michelle Wine Estate’s wineries and partners in Washington, Oregon, California, and around the world. I was pleased to see some famous Torres wines from Spain on the shelves when we visited. SMWE imports and distributes Torres wines in the U.S. as it does for Antinori, New Zealand’s Villa Maria, and French Champagne house Nicholas Feuillatte among others.

Bottom line: visitors cannot help but be impressed by the beautiful, welcoming grounds and imposing chateau facility and the delightful array of programs on offer. No wonder about 300,000 of them come each year both to visit the winery and to attend outdoor concerts on the big lawn behind the visitor center. Chateau Ste Michelle was conceived as a destination winery that’s what it is today.

The recent remodel has made it possible to expand the offerings to wine tourists so that they can custom-tailor a visit to get the experience that they seek.  Is this a model for the wine industry generally? No … and yes.

The No is easy. Most wineries don’t have the scale of production, volume of visitors, and the financial resources to make the sort of investment we see at Chateau Se Michelle possible. Only a few wineries around the globe can provide this level of service. In the last year of our travels, for example, I think only four wineries in Spain were at the same level: Freixenet, Codorníu, Torres, and Marqués Riscal.

But, Yes, this model is important for the industry to consider. Smaller wineries can offer a smaller range of experiences that are closely linked with locale, their history, and identity. Many visitors will appreciate the taste of authentic engagement as much as they do the wine itself.

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Congratulations to Chateau Ste Michelle on their 50th anniversary and wonderful new visitor center. Special thanks to Lynda Eller and Linda Chauncey for their hospitality during or visit and to Hermes Navarro del Valle for his insights.

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