When Anna Maria Kambourakis and her husband, Vasilis Kokologiannakis, moved to the Greek island of Crete in 2013, their dream was to start a new life while also reconnecting with their heritage. American-born children of Cretan immigrants, they’d grown tired of the rat race and sought refuge and opportunity in the Mediterranean.
In 2017, the couple launched Chania Wine Tours to share their love for Cretan wine with visitors from all over the world. During its first two years, business boomed. Then came 2020.
“We had about 10% of our usual sales in 2020,” says Kambourakis.
Without the wineries fully operational, they didn’t have anywhere to take the few guests they did have.
“Greece’s economy had never fully recovered from the 2008 crash, Grexit and all our other economic problems, so pivoting to new revenue streams has not been easy for many,” she says. “Unemployment has always been high, and bureaucratic red tape doesn’t make it easy to start something new.”
In addition to the loss of income from tasting room visitors, there’s a huge surplus of wine on the island.
“Since wine has an expiration date, it’s been very stressful to navigate what to do with the wine,” says Kambourakis. “Three wineries that I know personally have had to build extra storage facilities on premise for the wine surplus. The vineyards continue to produce. Wineries get one shot a year to make their wine, and the vines must go on.”
They’ve tried to support local wineries as best as they could.
“I did a few online tastings for former guests to strengthen those connections,” says Kambourakis. “The virtual tasting arena quickly got overcrowded. A few wineries have had to refocus on the local markets and virtual wine tastings to increase their sales domestically, but the loss is too great to make a dent.”
Kambourakis started a wine blog, Unraveling Wine, to keep busy and generate a small income. Kokologiannakis worked throughout the year at a winery to help with harvest, bottling, pruning and trellising. They qualified for some government assistance, which helped a little.
“It did keep our heads above water,” says Kambourakis. “Here in Crete, it feels like everyone is biding their time.”
On April 19, Greece became the first country in the European Union (EU) to permit international visitors, allowing in residents of the EU, the U.S., UK, Israel, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates who are vaccinated or can show negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results up to 72 hours they arrive.
According to the most recent figures from the Greek government, tourism accounts for 18% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs more than 900,000 people, one-fifth of the workforce. Kambourakis hopes the industry can begin to bounce back.
“I’d like to see more wineries offering specialized and private small group events: wine hikes, wine and food pairings, picnics or music events—less pretentiousness. Wine is for everyone.”—Tanisha Townsend
In spring 2019, Chania Wine Tours was at 80% capacity for the season. If it has at least 50% of tours booked next spring, it will feel like the company has “fully recovered,” says Kambourakis.
“We expect that tourism will resume perhaps in the third quarter here,” she says.
“Lucky for us, our tours have always been private or small groups of no more than six people, so we don’t anticipate having to change too much about our business model to adapt to regulations. It is our hope that since Greece handled the pandemic relatively well compared to other parts of Europe, that we’ll be rewarded with tourists who will feel safe here.”
As vaccine rollouts continue and borders reopen, Kambourakis envisions a thriving industry, albeit one that’s markedly different.
“Wine tourism is about to explode,” she says. “There is a whole new generation eager to learn about wine at the source and reconnect with farming and winemaking. People will seek less-crowded wine destinations that are practicing sustainability, and there will be a stronger interest in small wineries.”
Global tourism suffered its worst year on record in 2020, as international arrivals dropped by 74%, or one billion fewer visitors than 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. After a year of being trapped indoors and behind screens, the desire for tangibility seems to be at an all-time high.
Like Kambourakis, Tanisha Townsend, a Paris-based wine tour guide behind Girl Meets Glass, predicts a shift toward more intimate settings, as well as an emphasis on making wine more interactive.
“I’d like to see more wineries offering specialized and private small group events,” says Townsend. “Wine hikes, wine and food pairings, picnics or music events—less pretentiousness. Wine is for everyone.”
In France, Townsend observed that some in the wine industry underestimated how long the pandemic would last and, in turn, struggled to pivot accordingly.
“Some don’t know what to do and aren’t equipped to make changes,” she says. “Or they didn’t in the beginning and were thinking, ‘Oh, this will just be a few months and it won’t last.’ ”
Tourism regions began to focus on their own residents, who could visit and offer some immediate support, says Townsend. While her normal food and wine excursions throughout Paris and Champagne have been on pause for more than a year, she has adjusted her business model through virtual wine tastings, managing influencer campaigns for wine producers and social media consulting.
Townsend has “no idea” what her post-pandemic normality will look like, but she does know that she’s ready to return to sharing wine with oenophiles.
“I look forward to just getting back to the wineries I love and to discovering new ones,” she says. “And people are ready to get back to it. The second things open back up, people are flying out. I hope the wineries are ready.”
In California’s wine country, Bernadette Byrne, executive director of the Mendocino Winegrowers Association and a member of the Visit Mendocino tourism board, is gearing up for that massive influx of tourists.
Mendocino is a driveable destination for the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento region, and Byrne believes some will continue to be wary of air and international travel. Staycation-style trips could be more popular than ever, and businesses are figuring out how to respond.
“This pandemic has given our tourism related businesses the impetus to rethink their business and pivot to strategies that will help them move forward in the ‘new normal’ of travel post-COVID,” says Byrne.
Wineries that have introduced virtual tasting experiences and at-home tasting kits will likely hold onto those revenue boosters as they lean into strengthened ties with loyal fans and club members fostered throughout the pandemic. They’re more than ready to engage with them in real life.
Another pandemic-era marker that will likely remain is an emphasis on outdoor space. Countless wineries invested to better accommodate visitors outside. Those accommodations will continue to be welcome, as tourists seek to sip beneath a perfectly shaded spot with a stunning scenic view.
“The wine industry will continue to be a huge tourism driver as people seek to be in nature and outdoors,” says Byrne. “The pandemic has given the Mendocino County wine industry the ability to step up its visitation game. We have moved to a more sit-down and reservation style of tasting and welcoming guests. I hope this sticks.”
Byrne echoes the sentiments of her industry colleagues: Personalization will be paramount and packed, impersonal tasting rooms will be sidelined as people remain apprehensive to gather in big groups.
“The large-group, party-bus concept will not be part of most wineries’ business plan,” she says. “The days of overcrowded tasting rooms with less personalized service for guests has been replaced with a more curated experience for small, intimate groups.”
The picture of post-pandemic wine tourism being painted is decidedly less grandiose than one might imagine.
Analysts and trend forecasters have suggested a new Roaring Twenties will begin, marked by excess and extravagance. And while that may be true in some areas of society, it seems that many in the wine world won’t be so concerned with opulence.
Instead, the focus will be on education and intention, regardless of destination.
People will likely be eager to explore the unfamiliar, and the most successful wine businesses will be there to guide them as they embark on new adventures.