Wine Tourism in Mendoza: Rethinking Best-Practices with the UNWTO

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The Wine Economist will take a break for the next two weeks while Sue and I travel to Mendoza, Argentina for the second Global Wine Tourism conference organized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and hosted by the Argentina Ministry of Tourism. It will be great to return to Mendoza and to have a chance to discuss wine tourism strategies with both old friends and new ones.

Asking Questions, Rethinking Answers

Good conferences succeed because they work on several levels at once. Keynote speakers, for example, are most useful if they stimulate discussion among conference participants to allow them to shape and share their own thinking.

My keynote is about “Wine Tourism for Sustainable Development: Opportunities, Strategies, Pitfalls” and my goal is not to tell people what to think and do but instead challenge them ask new questions and rethink the answers to old ones.

The UNWTO welcomes this kind of thinking and rethinking. The organization recently adopted the UNWTO Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics, for example., reflecting the fact that global tourism is now big business and its significant economic, social and cultural impacts must be fully considered.

Thinking and then acting — that’s what it’s about. Other speakers will share their experiences from around the world, giving us all a lot to think about!

The UNWTO has developed a wine tourism framework or prototype. Yolanda Perdomo, Director of the UNWTO Affiliate Members Program, will present the prototype and Gabriela Testa, President of Ente Mendoza Turismo, will discuss how it is being implemented in the Mendoza region.

Mendoza has enormous potential for wine tourism as I explained in my 2013 book Extreme Wine. I highlighted two very different wineries for their tourist experience: Tempus Alba and Salentein.

Situated close to Mendoza city, Tempus Alba hosts many young wine tourists who visit on bicycle. They enjoy the wines and food at the restaurant, of course, and receive an education about Malbec and the vineyard.  The vibe is casual and fun, but the approach is seriously thoughtful. I’m a big fan of what Aldo Biondolillo and his family are doing at Tempus Alba.

11120_killkaBodegas Salentein is located high in the Uco Valley and I don’t think many people bike there from Mendoza. It was the first destination winery in this now-booming wine region and features an art gallery, a stunning barrel room dubbed the “wine cathedral” and fine dining, too. As is the case of many Mendoza wineries, the architecture rivals and reinforces the dramatic Andes mountain scenery. Fantastic.

Theory and Practice

The UNWTO conference balances the theory and practice by including a number of local wine tourist experiences in the afternoon sessions. These winery visits will be a lot of fun, of course, but they will be most useful if participants give serious and critical consideration to what works (and why) and what could work better (and how can this be achieved). And then the trick is try to apply those sharpened critical skills to wine tourism offerings, strategies, and policies back home.

I will paste below the tentative list of wineries and experiences that will be available to the UNWTO conference participants and, by the way, to adventurous wine tourists generally when they visit Mendoza. The list gives a concrete sense of the diversity of wine tourism offerings available in this beautiful part of the world.

Come back in two weeks for more Wine Economist! Cheers (and adios!).

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  • Bodega Norton: Restaurant La Vid, Chef Patricia Suárez Roggerone Experience: Winery bicycle tour
  • Bodega Renacer: Restaurant Renacer, Chef Sebastian Weingand Experience: Virtual reality and winery visit by an oenologist, The Appassimento
  • Susana Balbo Wines: Restaurant Osadía de Crear, Chef Marianela Pizzonia Experience: Blending competitions
  • Bodega Terraza de los Andes: Restaurant Residencia Terrazas de los Andes, Chef Noelia Scquizziatto Experience: Tasting from barrels and cooking class, deserts
  • Bodega Lagarde: Restaurant El Fogón, Chef Lucas Olcese Experience: Historic winery tour, which is DOC MALBEC certified and was the first denomination controlled by
    America
  • Entrecielos Luxury Wines & Spa: Restaurant Katharina, Chef Federico Castro Experience: Limited Edition Vineyard Loft & Spa Hammam, traditional Turkish relaxation and leansing methods
  • Bodega Trivento: Restaurant Espacio de Arte, Chef Sebastián Flores Experience: Art & Wine; Delhez family wine exposition; Bicycle tasting tour in Finca Los Vientos through its sustainable irrigation system
  • Bodega Trapiche Restaurant Espacio Trapiche, Chef Lucas Busto Historic winery and the arrival of the railway. Re-creation of two programs that are part of the Wine Tourism Events Calendar: “Wine and Cinema” and “Tango in the Vineyards”
  • Casa Vigil: Restaurant Casa Vigil, Chefs Santiago Maestre and Federico Petit Experience: Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy in the heart of Chachingo, The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso from Alejandro Vigil’s point of view
  • Bodega Vistalba: Restaurant Vistalba, Chef Jesus Cahiza Experience: Royal Staircase to Calicata and tasting of exotic varieties
  • Bodega A16: Restaurant Finca Papa Francisco, Chef Felipe Bakos Experience: Art exposition at Plaza de Esculturas, “Augure Stone” by local artist Alfredo Ceverino and Cooking Class, Regional Argentinian Cuisine
  • Bodega Chandon: Bistró Chandon, Chef Maitas Gil Experience: Travel through the paths of Chandon, the first subsidiary of Moet Chandon outside of France
  • Bodega Ruca Malen: Restaurant Ruca Malen, Chef Juan Garcia Ventureyra Experience: Brush & Bottle, Wine Cathedral
  • Bodega Nieto Senetiner: Restaurant Nieto Senetiner, Chefs Daiana Farías, Jorge Cardozo and Gabriela Barrientos Experience: Wine scents experience
  • Bodega Tierras Altas: Restaurant Juana María, Chefs Blanca Espinosa and Lucca Evangelista Experience: Malbec blind tasting
  • Bodega Los Toneles, an urban heritage winery.
  • Bodega Monteviejo: Restaurant Monteviejo, Chef Nadia Haron
  • Bodega Solo Contigo: Wine village, visit Solo Contigo WTC
  • Bodega Corazón del Sol: Wine village, visit ¨Tasting the Willows¨, wines of the Revana family
  • Salentein: Restaurant Killka, the Wine Cathedral
  • Bodega Andeluna: Restaurant Andeluna, High altitude wines from Valle de Uco
  • Bodega Piedra Infinita: Restaurant Piedra Infinita
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Flashback Friday: Can Wine Tourism Take Center Stage in Valpolicella?

Sue and I have wine tourism on our minds these days because we are getting ready for the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s global wine tourism conference in Mendoza, Argentina later this month.

We were in the Veneto at this time three years ago and wine tourism was on our minds there, too. Here is a Flashback Friday column from 2014 about wine tourism in Valpolicella.

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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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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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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 jvust beyond with a full moon in the distance.

It’s the Food, Dummy

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

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

 

When is a Wine Tourist Not a Wine Tourist? Lessons from Cyprus

nelionWe were sitting on the terrace at Nelion Winery, perched on the famous Paphos-Troodos road, talking with winemaker Marinos Ioannou and tasting his excellent wines. (We loved a dry red made from the indigenous Ofthalmo grape variety and brought home a bottle to share with friends here).

A Happening Place

Nelion was kind of a happening place while we were there. Lots of traffic, lots of visitors. This is not an accident. The Paphos-Troodos road draws many visitors who come to Cyprus and want to see the signature sights of the island.

Nelion provides a range of experiences for them.  You can taste 3 wines for free or all 9 wines at the bar for €5 per person. Ten euro per head will get you a seated 9-wine tasting on the terrace with cheese and salami and €15 buys a winery and vineyard tour plus the terrace tasting and snack plate.

Tourists are critically important to the winery, which produces around 25,000 bottles each year and sells most of them at the cellar door during the tourist season, supplementing this with bulk wine sales to local residents during the off-season.

We heard lots of languages and accents — British, Russian, Israeli, French — and saw lots of wine go out of the tasting room into waiting cars. Marinos had been in the audience when I spoke at the wine symposium earlier in the week and it is clear that he already understood why I stressed wine tourism as an industry strategy.

No Wine Tourists Here?

nelion3So I was more than surprised when he brought up the topic and said in a matter-of-fact way that there are no wine tourists in Cyprus.

No wine tourists? What about all these people who come here and taste and buy your wine? They are tourists, most of them, but they aren’t wine tourists. And he was right.

So what is a wine tourist?

I often talk about wine tourism in the Napa Valley, where it is a booming industry, and I think the term applies pretty well to what is going on there. Most of the tourists are drawn there by the wine, although maybe it would be better to say that they are wine lifestyle tourists, since wine and winery are not the only parts of the package on offer in the Napa Valley.

In many places including Cyprus, what we think of as wine tourists are really tourists of a different stripe who take advantage of the opportunity to visit a winery and perhaps buy some wine as a sidebar to their main tourist focus. For these visitors, wine tourism is an alternative to the main agenda– something to do when rainy weather keeps you off the beach — or an attractive bonus stop on the road to Troodos, for example.

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Can Wine Compete?

Cyprus has lots of tourists — I think it is the island’s most important industry now — and has developed several wine routes to help tourists find their way around.  But as Marinos noted, real wine tourists are still few and far between. What needs to happen to change this?

At first glance it is difficult to imagine how wine can compete for tourists in Cyprus. Cyprus has important historical sites and a deep and attractive culture. Cyprus is a playground, with beaches and mountains to enjoy. Cyprus has wonderful food, with many regional specialties. Cyprus was great weather, which attracts European tri-athletes who want get a jump-start on training.  How in the world can wine compete?

Easier Said Than Done

The answer, as you have probably already guessed, is not to compete but to cooperate. Wine is part of Cyprus’s long history, a key component of its culture, and a perfect match for the great food. The key, as work done by the United Nations World Tourism Organization has stressed, is to bring these threads together with wine at the center.

This is not necessarily an easy task. Wine producers in Cyprus struggle at times to work together to promote their national “brand,” so expanding cooperation to include museums, archaeological sites, restaurants, hotels, national and regional tourist agencies and so forth is easier said than done. Creative use of the wine route concept, linking it to other regional structures, may be a good way to begin.

Nelion winery has made a modest start to this. The tasting room is also a sales room for a variety of local foods and some craft items. This shows the winery as embedded in the local community, with its food, culture, and beautiful landscape.

Fostering real wine tourism is not a Cypriot problem — it is everyone’s problem. Everyone who wants to see wine tourism prosper and achieve its great potential to develop wine, wineries, and wine regions has an interest in converting tourists who stop at wineries into wine tourists.

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This is the final column in our series on wine and wine tourism in Cyprus. Sue and I would like to thank once again the Cyprus Tourism Organization for inviting us to attend the Cyprus Wine Competition, to visit wineries, taste the wines, and meet such interesting people. Thanks to you all!

Goodbye Columbus? Three Variations on a Barcelona-Based Wine Tourism Theme

kvesp1089pThe monument to Christopher Columbus at the foot of the Las Ramblas promenade must be one of the most-viewed sights in very scenic Barcelona. Standing atop his tall column, Columbus points to the sea, an act that makes sense both for Columbus himself and for Barcelona, a city that has long turned its face to the sea and to the international influences that it provides.

Columbus points to the sea — that’s what people think he is doing. But I have another, somewhat less literal theory. I think that he is really pointing, in a vague and perhaps somewhat misguided fashion, away from Barcelona’s bright city lights and toward the not-too-distant vineyards — to the Penedés and Priorat wine regions. Tourists, he is saying, you need to visit wineries and learn about Spanish wine!

My evidence? Wishful thinking, of course (reinforced by a poor sense of direction),  but more significantly this fact: if you walk down the stairs in the base of the Columbus’s column you will find not a maritime museum as you might expect but a wine tourism center, there established to help you enjoy winery visits in this region.

Visitors to Barcelona really should make time to visit wineries — and many thousands of them do. Columbus was busy during our visit, so we relied upon FEV, the Spanish Wine Federation, to organize our itinerary. Here are three case studies that show different sides of wine tourism in this part of Spain.

Arte Nouveau Cava at Codorníucodorniu

History is an important part of any visit to Codorníu-Raventos. Josep Ravenos was the first to make a Spanish sparkling wine using the traditional method and it is a leading producer of Cava wine today.

Codorní receives about 80,000 guests each year and most of them begin their visit in the extravagant arte nouveau hall that you see here (the exterior architecture is just as fascinating and unique). The tour makes good use of the beautiful gardens, which hold many delights including a fascinating wine museum in another striking arte nouveau building.

We met with the  head winemaker, who was excited help us understand Cava today and to show us the lab where he experiments with micro-fermentations in a constant effort to raise quality and draw out new expressions of Cava. It was an intense and fascinating visit.

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Take the Frexinet Cava Train

The architecture is distinctive and historic at Freixenet, but what’s inside the building (and underground, too) was more the point here. We walked down, down, down — deep underground — to the miles of tunnels where Cava was stored for second-fermentation in the bottle for many years.

Like most of the 90,000 visitors who come here each year, Sue and I boarded a small train to tour the tunnels — if you have visited Champagne you may have taken a similar ride there. One of our stops was at the yeast lab — Freixenet believes that their distinctive yeast variety is one key to the unique quality of their wines and so they put much effort into yeast research. Fascinating.

A special tasting was set for us with Pedro Bonet, head of the Freixenet winery family and President of the Cava DO. The goal of the exercise was to show us the enormous diversity of Cava and it was an eye-opening experience. Cava isn’t one thing or two, but a whole spectrum of tastes and aromas. Delicious!

Both Cava winery visits impressed us with the fact that while Cava is a product that uses traditional winemaking techniques, it is also constantly changing both to improve quality, develop new expressions of the wine, and to achieve more efficient production. The market for sparkling wines is very competitive — both among Spanish producers and between them and international rivals. Robots and machines now replace workers where possible for routine jobs, freeing human creativity for higher tasks.

There was much more to see and do at Freixenet, but we had to move on. Lunch was waiting at our next stop!

The Torres Experience

winedayOne of the brochures we found at the wine tourist center at the base of the Columbus monument was for Miguel Torres. “Wine Day at Torres Winery” presents a number of options for Barcelona tourists including a seven hour guided bus tour with stops at Torres, Jean Leon and Saint Sadurni d’Anoia wineries for €71 (children under 8 ride free) or an 8 hour guided bus tour with stops at Torres, Montserrat (with tastings of traditional liqueurs), and a tour of scenic Stiges for €63.

Not everyone likes a bus tour so train and auto options are also on offer. Take the train from Barcelona to Vilfranca del Penendés, for example, then a shuttle to the nearby Torres winery for a visit, tasting, and return trip with a tour of the scenic village.  The trip lasts about 5 hours and costs just €15. I think it would be very pleasant way to spend a day riding the train, seeing the countryside and enjoying the wine experience, too.

There are many options for Torres wine tourists with their own transportation, which you can view at the Club Torres website.   Our tour of Torres began with lunch at the winery’s Restaurant Mas Rabell, which features a daily set menu of traditional cuisine paired with Torres wines, of course. What a great way to taste the wines! We enjoyed chatting with Miguel Torres, who had attended my FEV talk in Valladolid and asked the toughest questions.

Then we toured the Mas La Plana vineyard and winery with a winemaker. The vineyard, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon vines, redefined the idea of wine in this region and the Mas La Plana wine, which has its own winery, raised the bar, too. The tour stressed quality, innovation, and sustainability.

Torres, Freixenet and Codorníu are three case studies of wineries that have invested in wine tourism and are gaining the benefits, both for themselves and their communities. They are great role models for other ventures around the world.

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Goodbye Columbus and Barcelona, too. Sue and I loved visiting the city and learned a lot at our winery visits. Thanks to everyone we met for their kindness and hospitality.

Sketches of Spain: State-of-the-Art Wine Tourism Does More than Sell Wine

pagosWine tourism is no longer about just selling wine. Wineries understand that it is a way to build or strengthen a brand and to create brand ambassadors. The United Nations World Tourism Organization Wine Tourism initiative goes further . The UNWTO  proposes that wine tourism is or can be a set of rich experiences that use wine to connect history, culture, tradition, and cuisine in a way that links the global tourism market to distinctive local environments.

The best wine tourism experiences, like the best tourism experiences generally,  surprise, delight, inform and sometimes inspire and transform. That’s a powerful force. I guess that’s why wine tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the wine industry.

Sue and I encountered several state-of-the-art wine tourism programs during our recent FEV-sponsored visit to Spain. Here are sketches of three of the most memorable to give you a sense of what’s on offer in this dynamic wine nation. Come back next week for three more case studies.

More than a Museum

You travel to Morales de Toro by passing through acre after acre of century-old goblet-trained Tinto de Toro (the local variety of Tempranillo) vines. What a sight! When you get there you are drawn to the Pagos Del Rey Wine Museum, which is located in the building that once housed the local cooperative winery and radiates the sense of its utilitarian origins.

Most of the wine museums I have experienced are built around collections of old equipment, and this is true here as well. Both the garden and the museum itself have these displays. What gets your attention, however, is the main hall, which features the double row of concrete tanks (see photo above) that was the hard-working part of the winery. Interactive exhibits stand between the rows, but the real fun begins when you round the corner and enter the first tank.

A video kicks on a you quickly realize that you are actually in the tank as the grapes are loaded in and fermentation takes place over and around you (interrupted by periodic pump-overs). Each of the other tanks presents its own video that explains the vineyard and winery process until you reach the end, which immerses you in the local harvest festival.

This might be the most interesting wine museum we’ve ever visited in the way that all the senses are engaged and linked to both the wines but also local culture and tradition. No wonder so many wine tourists make there way here each year (click here to take a virtual tour right now). Congratulations to the Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine companies, for creating this small treasure, which seems to tick all the UNWTO boxes so well.

A Monastery with a Michelin Starabadia

A completely different experience at Abadia Retuerta  and its associated hotel LeDomaine, which are located just outside the Ribera del Duero zone (Vega Sicilia is just down the road, so it is a good neighborhood). This is a very ambitious luxury wine tourism project of Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis. The hotel, with its Michelin-rated Refectorio restaurant, is housed in a restored 12th century monastery, which Spanish friends tell me was in ruins before the project began.

The careful restoration preserved a sense of the place while upgrading amenities (including a spa) to appeal to luxury wine tourists. The chapel feels like what it once was and the cloisters have that quiet sensibility that makes them special. The restaurant is in the old refectory and makes dining there an experience that is about more than food.

Sue and I enjoyed one of the set dinner menus that sought inspiration in local ingredients and traditions. We got very lucky on the wine as the Novartis board had met there the day before and we helped finish off some of the magnums that they had enjoyed with their meal.

It is hard to stop thinking about the hotel and restaurant, but the wine side is special too. The wine tourism experiences are mainly organized around the various old vineyards with e-bike, horseback and 4×4 transportation modes all available.

The total package — vineyards, winery, hotel, restaurant, and spa — is quite spectacular.  A tip of the hat to Novartis for seeing the potential of this place making such an important investment in the wine tourism future of this region.

Compare and Contrast
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We left Abadia del Retuerta and set our gps for Elciego in the Rioja region, stopping along the way in Burgos for lunch and a tour of the famous cathedral. Our destination was Marqués de Riscal, the oldest wine producer in Rioja, and its famous hotel, which rises above the winery at the top of the hill.

The main hotel structure was designed by architect Frank Gehry, all bright colors and unexpected angles. Most of the hotel rooms and the spa are found in a more conventional building adjacent to the Ghery structure and over-looking a vineyard block. It is quite a place and, in a funny way, its sharp contrast with Spanish tradition serves to bring out some of the features of the small village on the other side of the road (especially the church, I think).

Down the hill from the hotel  you find the historic winery, which produces 10 million bottles of wine a year (65% for export) and receives about 80,000 visitors. Wine tourism is well organized here with a large public relations staff and an excellent program that takes visitors from the original 1858 building on through the winery ending at bright and colorful tasting room and gift shop area. The brief video that summarizes the main messages of the winery and tour was one of the best of its type we have seen.

We got a real sense of Rioja wine history at Marqués de Riscal, a winery that lives up very well to the goals of the UNWTO wine tourism initiative. It promotes wine, but does much more, creating jobs in the hospitality industry, drawing attention to the region, its culture and history. That’s what wine tourism today is all about.

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Thanks to Susana and FEV for inviting us to Spain and to everyone who welcomed us to Pago del Rey, Abadia del Retuerta, and Marqués de Riscal. Come back next week for three more case studies of wine tourism in Spain.

Practical Guide to Wine Tourism in the Republic of Georgia: UNWTO Lessons

tbilisi-001Sue and I  recently returned from the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and we are still processing the experience.

One interesting feature of the conference is that the sessions weren’t confined to the usual convention center or hotel ballroom locations. The organizers boldly took the program on the road to four interesting wine tourist venues.

This experiment provided an interesting opportunity to talk about wine tourism while actually being wine tourists. Here is what I think I learned in the process.

First Impressions: A Georgian Supra

The conference opened with a gala dinner (hosted by Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili) at the beautiful Funicular Restaurant, which is located high on the hill overlooking Tbilisi next to the television tower. The view from the patio was spectacular (see Sue’s photo above), especially as the sun went down and the lights came up, highlighting the monuments. It felt like you could reach out and the touch the city.0a1_6242

There was good Georgian wine at the dinner, but the focus more more on Georgian food, wonderful polyphonic singers and traditional dance groups. Professor George Bagashvili was the master of ceremonies and he explained all that we were seeing and hearing. He deftly led us through the traditional series of supra toasts, but in a tourist-friendly way (without the feared requirement to drain endless glasses or horns of high-proof  chacha).

The gala dinner at the scenic restaurant was a reminder that wine tourism is first and foremost tourism and it is generally a mistake to think of it out of the context of other tourism opportunities. There will be some who will come to Georgia just for the wine, but most will be attracted by the complete package — sights, sounds, culture, people, food and so on with wine playing a larger of smaller part in each case. The dinner was a great introduction to Georgia’s best and a good lesson that wine tourism is most effective when it is embedded in the broader context.

1011 and All That

We loaded into coaches the next morning and headed east toward  Kakheti, the main wine region and the location of our first meetings. We stopped at the historic Alaverdi Monastery, were wine has been made using the traditional qvevri method since 1011.

We toured the monastery, visited the marani cellar with its qvevri vessels, and tasted one of the wines, a complex golden Rkatsiteli shown below. After the tour we adjourned to a cafe where we had coffee and cups of delicious matsoni (local yogurt) with local honey and walnuts (a fabulous combination).

The wine tourism here was seamlessly integrated into the cultural elements and featured local food products and the opportunity to purchase traditional crafts, too. A great tourist and wine tourist stop. And this is not an accident.p1110666

Georgia correctly sees tourism as an economic development opportunity, especially in rural areas like Kakheti. The Georgian government has worked to develop tourist infrastructure and marketing strategies in partnership with international development organizations including the World Bank, EBRD and USAID.

The Alaverdi Monastery is an example of how these efforts have come together successfully to leverage history, culture and wine to create real opportunities for local workers and producers while giving tourists a memorable experience.

Tunnel Vision?

If the monastery is a good example of adapting something quite old to create a wine tourism experience, our next stop showed a more contemporary touch. Khareba Winery offers a focused wine tourism experience built around a huge network of tunnels that date from Soviet days. The tunnels were reportedly built with military use in mind before eventually becoming a regional wine storage facility and now a wine tourist attraction.

Our afternoon conference session was held up at the Saperavi restaurant with its great view of the valley and then we walked down the hillside to the tunnel with its exhibits, wine tasting, and a group of polyphonic singers who filled the underground space with sound.

The tunnels are a noteworthy attraction, but there was more. A path meandered through the park-like grounds and along the way the visitor is offered the chance to bake bread in a traditional clay oven, watch chacha being made (and taste some, too), make churchikhela, which are strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must. A moveable feast was laid for us along with path with traditional dishes, including mountain trout and spit-roasted meat.

As at the monastery, the experience was orchestrated to create a complicated sensory experience filled with sights, sounds, smells and tastes mixed with a strong sense of Georgian culture. Wine was at the center of the experience, but there were many threads interwoven here.

A Georgian Chateaucastle

Chateau Mukhrani, the conference venue for the final day, was built in 1878 and, as the vintage image suggests, it resembles a French chateau to a certain extent. The likeness has been heightened by recent upgrades aimed at enhancing wine tourism.

The grounds and the facilities are beautiful and the wines are good, too, made mainly in the international style under the supervision of Frenchman Patrick Honef. We especially enjoyed the Reserve du Prince Saperavi that was served at the closing dinner

The reaction of some of the international conference participants was noteworthy. What is a French chateau doing here? Why isn’t this winery made along traditional Georgian lines, like the monastery, for example? The winery’s architecture, which most visitors will find appealing, was a turn-off to those seeking greater authenticity.

So why the disappointment? I think it is a example of something that I call the “globalization paradox.” We love globalization because of its ability to bring things from all around the world to our towns and cities. Good espresso, authentic wood-fired pizza, designer shops — it is great to have these things nearby creating a cosmopolitan local environment.

But there is a downside. Everyone wants these things and for the most part they get them. This means that when we travel abroad we see many of the same things we already have back home and not the quaint frozen-in-time images that we expect.

Globalization makes the local more diverse and interesting, but the foreign is rendered less exotic and disappointingly more like home. Sigh. Do you see how a French chateau in Georgia fits this pattern?  It definitely adds to the wine tourism experience in Georgia, even if it takes away a bit from the experience that  the seasoned international traveler may be seeking.

This video will give you a sense of Chateau Mukhrani and how it has been designed to serve as an attractive wine tourist destination. It is good to remember that wine tourists are a diverse group and a great many of them will enjoy visiting a chateau … even if they do it in Georgia, not Bordeaux.

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How did the conference’s experimental format work? As you might expect some venues worked better than others for particular purposes. And I am not sure that everyone realized that we were both discussing wine tourism and practicing it at the same time, meaning that some teaching moments were probably lost. But I applaud experiments like this and hope the organizers continue to innovate at next year’s UNWTO meeting in Mendoza, Argentina.

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A quick shout-out to George Piradashvili and the staff at Chateau Mere, where we stayed during our brief tour of Kakheti after the conference. Chateau Mere is a good example of how wine tourist infrastructure can be creatively developed to serve diverse visitor needs. Personal thanks to George for sharing his great food, fine wine, and Georgian wine business insights with us.

Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia: A Preliminary Report

Sue and I have recently returned from the untwo2United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and I know just what you are going to say. What in the world is the UN doing sponsoring a wine tourism conference and why was it in the Republic of Georgia?

First Things Second

Let me answer the second question first. Georgia is the self-styled “Cradle of Wine,” with documented wine production going back 8000 years so it certainly has standing. It is also probably the most wine-centric culture I have ever experienced. Wine is everywhere. Just about everyone drinks it, most families make it for their own consumption, and its symbolic and practical importance is everywhere to be seen. Wine and vine — these are key elements of the Georgian DNA. Really.

Georgia is a poor nation, especially outside of Tbilisi’s bright city lights. Mexico’s per capital GDP is about $9000 according to World Bank statistics. Georgia’s is about $3800. So anything that can create employment opportunities (especially rural jobs) and spur economic development is welcome here. Tourism of the nature and adventure varieties is a big contributor to national income. Why not leverage Georgia’s rich culture, and especially its deep wine traditions, to create economic opportunity?

So it is easy to see why Georgia would volunteer to host a conference like this — and they did a magnificent job.  But what’s the UN connection?

Wine Tourism Rationale

The basis for UN programs in tourism and now wine tourism is surprisingly strong, as the “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism (pdf),” which was promulgated at the conference, makes clear.  The UNWTO’s mandate, for example, states that,  “The fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace and prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human  rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Tourism cannot accomplish all these goals by itself, but it can be part of the process.

Tourism is one way that we experience and understand other nations, peoples, and cultures. It creates jobs, of course, but it has the potential to also increase understanding. International tourism has been one of the global growth industries of the last 30 years, so it is not unreasonable that the UN pay attention to this economic and cultural exchange vector.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the  United Nations General Assembly in 2015,  includes tourism as a tool for sustainable economic development. “By 2030,” the document specifies, the UN should “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

The UNWTO had previously identified gastro-tourism as being an important element of its sustainable tourism development program. The wine tourism initiative and this conference were organized as part of the gastro-tourism program.

About the Conference

The first UNWTO Global Wine Conference attracted more than 250  participates from 42 countries. My panel on best practices in wine tourism included speakers from Italy, Canada, Japan, Argentina and the United States  (I talked about Napa’s success and also its challenges).

The organizers designed the program to minimize talking head blah-blah-blah and maximize focused interaction among the participants. (I have never before traveled through 11 time zones and back in order to speak for 10 minutes!) There was a lot of knowledge and experience in the room and it made sense to draw it out through small group discussion.

I think the strategy worked on the whole and  Sue and I feel our time was well spent, but I wish there have been an opportunity for greater depth on at least some topics. The conference moves to Mendoza, Argentina next year — it will be interesting to see how the program evolves.

One interesting innovation was to move the conference out of the typical sterile hotel ballroom or convention center environment and to have the sessions in wineries, where wine tourism strategies could be seen in practice as well as discussed in theory. Come back next week for an analysis of what we learned from these experiences.

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uncorkSue and I were delighted to meet Matt Horkey and Charine Tan at the UNWTO conference. Their fist book, Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, was published last week and it is recommended reading  if you are planning a wine tour to  this region or are interesting in these wines generally. Sue and I found their recommendations for Georgia and its wines on the mark.

I like this book so much that I wrote a publicity “blurb” about it. Here it is:

Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan take us along for the ride as they travel the wine roads of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia in their intriguing new book Uncorking the Caucasus. It is exciting to see these ancient wine regions through their eyes and to experience the ways that the very old and the very new come together through wine. A perfect read for wine lovers looking for new wines, new regions, and new perspectives. Pack your bags and join Matthew and Charine as they uncork the Caucasus. Highly recommended.

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This is the first in a short series of columns on the UNWTO conference and the Georgian wine industry. Thanks very much to the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Authority for making our participation in this conference possible.