Wine Tourism Roars Back in Napa and Sonoma

Rodney Strong Vineyards / Photo by Chris Majors

After more than a year of shutdowns, reopenings, reclosings, fires, smoke and surging e-commerce and Zoom tastings, Napa and Sonoma wineries are seeing visitors come back to taste in person. Thus far, arrivals have exceeded many locals’ most optimistic expectations.

“We are seeing a strong return to travel,” says Todd O’Leary, vice president of marketing and communications for Sonoma County Tourism. “There’s been a huge pent-up demand for it, and now that consumers are getting vaccinated, they are booking travel now and/or into the future.

“We’re definitely seeing our fans spending time here, but we’re also welcoming new first-time visitors, as wine country is oftentimes a bucket list destination,” he says.

Larkmead outdoor tasting wine tourism
Outdoor tasting at Larkmead Vineyards / Photo by Leigh-Ann Beverley

According to hotel occupancy statistics from Smith Travel Research, lodging demand in the Napa Valley in 2021 is reapproaching 2019 levels. On many Friday and Saturday nights, hotels near 90% occupancy, while midweek occupancy rates are now close to 50%.

“Anecdotally, we’re also hearing that wineries and restaurants in Napa Valley are booked to capacity on most weekends,” says Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO, Visit Napa Valley. “We move to even fewer restrictions on June 15, which should help alleviate some of the capacity constraints visitors have been experiencing when trying to book tastings.”

On June 15, California will end social distancing and many indoor mask mandates and will permit businesses to operate at full capacity, though on June 4 Governor Gavin Newsom stopped short of definitively removing the existing state of emergency.

Gallagher notes that over Memorial Day weekend, the Napa Valley Welcome Center saw record-breaking foot traffic with nearly 800 walk-in guests.

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Jeff Zappelli is the general manager of Walt Wines which, along with its sister brands Hall and BACA, operates five tasting rooms across Napa and Sonoma.

“We are very busy, wine tasting is a very popular thing,” says Zappelli. “People want to do something familiar.

“At first we were booked with wine club members looking for a good human moment. It continued to grow in an organic way, locals first, then visitors from Los Angeles, Sacramento and Nevada, and then the planes started to roll in with a lot of people we knew. We celebrated with them,” adds Zappelli.

Along the way, he installed more outdoor seating and ordered more tents, heaters and umbrellas. His group of wineries emphasizes appointment-only tasting experiences, where more meaningful and personal relationships are forged.

“What has felt good about this time of recovery is that people are reengaging with tasting rooms, I hope that trend sticks,” says Zappelli. “We’re seeing younger consumers come less for the party and more for the wine.”

Todd O'Leary Sonoma County Tourism
“We are seeing a strong return to travel,” says Todd O’Leary, Sonoma County Tourism / Courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

International travelers from both Europe and Asia are returning to marquee wineries like Diamond Creek, according to Nicole Carter, president of Diamond Creek and Merry Edwards.

“People are tipping well, they’re so happy to be back out,” says Carter. “People are spending and interested in spending their time, too, they want to relax and smell the roses. We are seeing higher numbers for this time of year than we did in 2019—pre-Covid-19—and higher purchasing power. I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll exceed 2019 numbers.”

At Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, inquiries from big groups and family reunions are beginning to reappear.

“We saw club folks and locals come back first, then regional guests,” says Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications at Rodney Strong. “Lately more out-of-towners are about and increasingly so each weekend.”

As restrictions ease, O’Gorman expects to launch more weekend events with safety still in mind, including an Americana Festival in late summer that will limit capacity to 300 people in a space that can regularly fit 1,100.

There’s a sense of relief and celebration, industry members say, and so some people are arriving ready to spend. As a result, many wineries are upping their offerings for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

TOR Napa Valley has two appointment-only experiences, one of which costs $950 per person with a four-person minimum. Called the Black Magic Experience, it involves touring several vineyards and tasting top-rating TOR wines.

Aileron Estates offers an open-cockpit flight over wine country before sitting down to taste proprietor Shannon O’Shaughnessy two wines. The experience starts at $550 per person.

Aileron Estates Shannon O'Shaughnessy
Aileron Estates proprietor Shannon O’Shaughnessy / Photo by Bob McClenahan

Much of this growth has been happening with Covid-19 restrictions still in place.

“We’re hoping on the 15th to have a level playing field region by region as well as solid guidance on gatherings and events,” says Zappelli.

Even with solid guidance, limitations are expected to persist.

“Many of our wineries, restaurants and hotels are dealing with labor shortages,” says O’Leary. “So, while consumer demand is strong, capacities have been and will continue to be constricted. We’re advising visitors to plan ahead by making reservations well in advance. Most wineries are already appointment-only nowadays.”

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For Carter, the demand is a sign of something bigger.

“What’s most exciting is wine is enjoying an amazing heyday,” she says. “People want the total experience that comes with wine, the storytelling and authenticity of wine, that’s the most uplifting thing to see.”

Published on June 14, 2021
Topics: Latest News