Katherine Canfield on how California is leading the way in wine tasting experiences

Whist other wine regions still struggle with establishing a successful wine tourism industry, California, which has long gone above and beyond welcoming visitors and offering tastings to create an all-encompassing experience for winery visitors, is now employing this approach in other areas of the industry, such as trade and consumer tasting events.

UK wine authority, consultant and educator Robert Joseph has long advocated for a refocus on wine tourism, encouraging wineries to go beyond offering tastings and create an entertaining and memorable experience for the visitor. By doing so, a winery will not only boost cellar door sales but also build brand awareness around the globe. “That is what California has got right,” said Joseph in a speech at a recent Great Wine Capitals event in South Africa. “They understand that wine tourism is not merely a matter of offering tastings. That’s not tourism – it is try-before-you-buy retailing.”

Shouldn’t the same concept apply for industry tasting events? Whether geared towards members of the trade, consumers or both, tasting events have a common end goal – to sell more wine. Studies have shown that creating a more dynamic wine tasting experience has potential to significantly boost sales, and once again California seems to be among the first to understand and execute this model.  

The Chardonnay Symposium that took place last week in Pismo Beach, California gathered together winemakers, members of the trade, and consumers to participate in a celebration of California’s queen white grape variety. It seems obvious that there should be a Chardonnay-focused event – the variety is California’s most widely planted wine grape, with 95,074 acres reported in 2012 by the California Wine Institute – however, it is still one of the few of its kind.

During the five years of its existence, The Chardonnay Symposium has developed into something much more than just a tasting; it is a complete experience designed to appeal to the senses and intellect of all attendees. The three-day agenda included a multi-course Chardonnay dinner, educational seminar and panel session and a Grand Tasting. In conjunction, many Central Coast offered special promotions and events to attract visitors to their individual wineries.

The Grand Tasting offered guests far more than the opportunity to taste Chardonnays from over 50 wineries from around California, as well as New Zealand and France. Over the course of three hours, visitors tasted fresh local oysters, cheeses, olive oil and other culinary delights, all designed to highlight Chardonnay as accompaniment to food. Also present, California State University, Cal Poly offered tools and guidance for sensory analysis, providing an educational element to the experience. For those feeling charitable, there was a Silent Auction conducted throughout the tasting, the proceeds of which were donated to the Cal Poly Wine & Viticulture Programme. A photo booth provided guests with take-home mementos of the occasion.

Apart from the myriad of activities, the venue at Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in itself was conducive to a very pleasurable experience and received praise from the majority of wineries present. “Dolphin Bay Resort offers a much better venue this year, in past years the event was held outside with no protection from the wind,” said Anne Moses founder of Patz & Hall Wines. “And you don’t even have to leave the town of Pismo.”

Still a relatively small-scale event, there was hope among wineries and organizers that it will continue to expand. If building a comprehensive and entertaining offering has the same effect for this event as it has for wine tourism and cellar door sales in California, growth will be inevitable.

The Chardonnay Symposium was held at Dolphin Bay Resort in Pismo Beach, CA on May 16 & 17. For more information on the event, visit the website: www.chardonnaysymposium.com.


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