Sustainable wine tourism: the next big thing?

Environmentally viticulture and solar-powered wineries are not entirely compatible with encouraging visitors to fly and drive long distances to visit them. Roger Morris considers how the wine industry is going to square this circle.

In Napa Valley, wineries have long been inviting tourists to visit them
In Napa Valley, wineries have long been inviting tourists to visit them

In 1968, over a half-century ago, Napa Valley voted to form an agricultural preserve, a rare action at the time enacted to keep intact the rural nature of the valley by preserving farmland, especially vineyards, and thus slowing business and residential incursion. It also stopped discussion of an interstate highway from being built through its heartland, dead in its tracks. The preserve now covers more than 32,000 acres (about 13,000 hectares), preserving the area’s bucolic look. Napa went further in 1989 when it defined a winery’s purpose (to make wine) which outlawed large events, such as weddings, except for five “grandfathered” wineries. Rather than discouraging tourism, visitors to the valley reached 3.85 million annually before the pandemic and generated $2.3 billion in income.

Napa Valley’s actions were early measures at enacting what is becoming one of the hottest topics throughout the wine-producing world – “sustainable wine tourism.” Unlike sustainable winegrowing – measures taken by individual wine estates to continuing to flourish while attaining environmental neutrality – sustainable wine tourism is almost always a result of regional actions taken to maintain an authentic and memorable experience for large numbers of visitors while not adversely affecting the agricultural environment, often while simultaneously luring in even more people. It’s a concept often compared to mashing down on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously.

“We’ve been thinking about wine tourism for more than 20 years,” says Catherine Leparmentier, founder and executive director of Great Wine Capitals, a tourism-centric organization launched in 1999 that has as its members the cities and nearby wine regions of Adelaide, Cape Town, Mendoza, Bilbao, Porto, Lausanne, Valparaiso, San Francisco, Verona, Mainz, and Bordeaux, where it is headquartered. “Napa Valley and South Africa, where I first heard the term ‘sustainable wine tourism,’ were early leaders,” Lepartmentier says. “So far, we have not too many real experts on the topic, but knowledge and experience are certainly growing.”

 

Multi-layered approach

Adrian Bridge is CEO of Portugal’s Taylor Fladgate port house, and a founding member of the climate-change-conscious Porto Protocol. In 2010, he opened the luxury, 82-room Yeatman hotel in Porto and a decade later, the nearby World of Wine, a 55,000 square metre, wine-focused experiential space with nine restaurants and bars and six museums. He defines sustainable wine tourism as “that which is beneficial to all parties,” which includes the tourist, the winegrowers and the surrounding community. “People” he continues “want an authentic experience, and we shouldn’t do anything to compromise that. It’s important to remember that this experience reflects on your brand.”

 

Catherine Leparmentier of Great Wine Capitals

 

“We consider sustainable wine tourism from several layers,” says Jennifer Lynch, general manager of Australia’s McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Board, “that is, ensuring that our region, our businesses and the experiences offered balance the needs of our guests and the needs of the business, our First Nations community and our region – socially, culturally, environmentally and economically.” 

Planning sustainable wine tourism begins with recognizing that not all tourists are alike. Bridge separates them into “tourists” and “travelers.” Some want only to “sample” wine life – tasting – while others want “immersion” – an in-depth experience that may last hours or days. In the past, the two have often been thrown together into the same everyone-queue-up-to-the-tasting-bar reception at a winery’s visitor center. Increasingly, they are now being separated.

Those who want to taste for an hour or two are being channeled into centralized venues in urban centers nearer hotels and restaurants, instead of having to drive into the countryside from winery to winery, which exacts a huge environmental cost while causing traffic delays on rural roads. These facilities are increasingly being located within regional towns, such as Napa, Sonoma and Healdsburg in California.  Bordeaux has its City of Wine, a combined education and hospitality center, and Burgundy is now opening three Cities of Wine – in Macon, Chablis and Beaune.

For those wanting immersion, wineries are offering pricier experiences, including food and lodging, with access to vineyards, gardens and winemaking. And more are now requiring advanced reservations, a practice accelerated by Covid regulations.  “We found that pre-Covid, about 10 percent of visits were being pre-booked in Bordeaux,” Leparmentier says. “Now it’s about 35%.”

There are two advantages to this approach. Wine lovers who book reservations at higher prices tend to leverage their investment in time and money by spending more during their stay while also becoming bigger ambassadors for their hosts. And advanced booking prevents against overload and allows wineries to better allot their resources, especially personnel. 

 

Adrian Bridge, CEO of Portugal’s Taylor Fladgate port house

 

More trains; fewer planes

Another important area in planning sustainable wine tourism is guaranteeing more-efficient, environmentally friendly infrastructure, especially transportation.  “In France, we’re trying to get greater use of trains instead of jetting everyone around the country,” Leparmentier says. To that end, there has been increased and faster express train service instituted between Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris and Bordeaux – and Burgundy – and Bordeaux city a few years ago introduced an intra-city rail service to reduce auto traffic.

Now, going forward, how is this sustainability to be established in any significant manner?  As Leparmentier points out, one way is to incorporate it into existing sustainability and tourism programs.  For example, last year Casa Valle Viñamar in Chile was awarded first place in the “sustainable tourism practices” in Best of Wine Tourism Awards, in part for promoting use of renewable energy through solar panels to power its tourism facilities.

Lynch says McLaren Vale is promoting sustainable tourism by urging individual wineries in construction and operations to use “low or zero concrete, ethical and sustainable timber sources, solar, waste water recycling, recycling to banning single-use plastics in their restaurants, sourcing primary produce from sustainable accredited producers for service in our starred restaurants.”

But, as Leparmentier notes, sustainable planning and programs need to involve all interested parties, including governments, on a regional, even national basis.  “For example, it’s not sustainable for us to continue the courtship of international visitors to France,” she says. “But it can’t be done by just one country.  If we discourage it, visits from abroad will go to Spain or Italy or somewhere else.”  

Even in Bordeaux, local winegrowers initially objected when the municipality-backed City of Wine devoted the majority of its space to wine production as a generic subject and poured wines made in other regions and counties. Leparmentier says, however, those objections have died down and resulted in smarter tourism on the parts of châteaux and smaller wineries that surround the city. And in the Douro Valley, Bridge notes that, while it may be environmentally sound to bring tourists upstream along the now-tamed Douro River, the boats often park in front of inns along the way, blocking the river view of guests. Such disputes beg for coordinated regional planning.

Leparmentier adds that the greatest, and largely unaddressed, requirement for meaningful sustainable wine tourism comes with addressing local social issues such as diversity and inclusion, affordable housing, living wages for the labor force and the overall needs of the community. Or, as, Lynch puts it, “This is sustainability at its heart – there are benefits and there are trade-offs of achieving social, cultural, environmental and economic balance.”   
 

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