Rivaling its popularity as a beverage, wine has become a phenomenal draw for tourism, including meetings. Production tours, cave dinners and team-building activities built around wine-making are all part of the many ways that wines and wineries figure into meeting agendas these days.
While the term “wine country” has been extended to regions across the continent, it is still the West that offers the greatest abundance of top wines and where meetings-friendly wineries are in greatest abundance. The choices continue to grow every year, with options extending from Southern California’s Temecula Valley on up to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Pioneers in the proliferation of destination wineries in the West, neighboring Napa Valley and Sonoma County are old hands at wine tourism. In 1975 there were only 25 Napa Valley wineries; today there are well over 400 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, a trend that has brought unlimited options for groups.
DMC Destination Design Group works with many of the wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Programs include introducing groups to the winemaker, learning about the winemaking process and offering winemaker dinners.
"We like to work with smaller production wineries so people get an intimate experience," says Ginger Guthrie, proprietor of the DMC. "We can do sensory tastings—break apart components that make the wine and teach how to identify characteristics of wine, such as smelling like tobacco, leather, coffee. We’ve done that in wineries and hotels. At the winery, it can be combined with a winery production tour that includes food and how it pairs with the wine."
Team-building options are popular at the wineries, according to Guthrie, whose DMC also organizes wine blending workshops that can be used as competitions where the winemaker judges the final blends.
There are other creative ways to experience the region’s viticulture. At Sonoma’s 500-acre Roche Carneros Estate Winery, groups can ride horses down rows of Chardonnay vines and alongside Pinot Noir and Syrah vines. They can also follow the horseback tour with a complimentary tasting of handcrafted wine made from the vineyards visited on the ride.
Groups can also rent the entire Napa Valley Wine Train, or single cars, paired with options such as winery tours or a vintner’s lunch.
Northern California’s wine regions now extend in all directions, north to Mendocino and east to the Tri-Valley area and Lodi, known for Zinfandel. Heading south, the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley are filled with wine-related group options.
Steve Henry, president and CEO of Associated Hosts, a Monterey County DMC, notes that wine blending outings are very popular with groups. For example, groups can learn what wines make a Bordeaux blend and then make their own. The winemaker will bottle their blend, cork it and let participants take it home.
"Groups like to be taken to a winery as an experiential event," Henry says.
At Chateau Julien Wine Estate in Carmel, grape stomping is a popular team-building activity, according to Michele Gogliucci, director of sales and marketing for special events at the winery.
Depending on the size, groups can be divided into teams, each with a barrel. Grapes are deposited in the barrels and team members go into the barrels and start stomping with their feet. After a set period of time, the amount of juice is measured by pouring it into bottles. The stomp can be done as a competition.
"Teams have to strategize a little, who is going to be the first to press when the grapes are easier to get the juice out and who will be last," Gogliucci says.
Blind tastings are also popular, in which five kinds of unlabeled wines are tested. After the winemaker describes the characteristics of each of the varietals in the blind tasting, participants can guess which ones are which.
The winery presents a relaxed and comfortable environment, according to Gogliucci.
"Even when business has to take place, maybe your guard is put down a little bit," she says. "We capture those folks [to whom] the business side is important, and they also understand part of business is developing relationships. It’s a very easy way to move into that."
Wine blending workshops and winemaker dinners are also popular at Scheid Vineyards, which is headquartered in Greenfield about an hour from downtown Monterey, but also has a tasting room on Monterey’s Cannery Row.
One unique venture is to host an Olympics in the Greenfield location, where attendees can organize a sprinting contest through the vines. Another option is holding a scavenger hunt for wine-related items, such as a screw cap, label and glass bottle—all the pieces it takes to bottle a wine.
According to Stefani Chaney, director of sales for Scheid Vineyards, groups also enjoy playing on the bocce ball courts and barrel sampling in the reserve winery in Greenfield.
Less known for its viticulture, Madera County features a number of options for groups. The Quady Winery offers winery tours and group tastings with food and wine pairing, and can also host classes on creating wine cocktails. Ficklin Vineyards offers tours of its historic adobe building and educational hayrides around the property.
Along the Central Coast, Paso Robles is expanding its wine country status with a leap from 35 to over 170 wineries in the past decade. DMC Destination Paso Robles features a full palette of wine tours, and many wineries cater to groups, such as the Eberle Winery, which offers VIP tours and dinners in its wine cave.
The Santa Ynez Valley sits at the heart of Santa Barbara County’s renowned wine country, now boasting over 100 wineries. Most of the wineries are small businesses, run by individuals or families.
"The one thing we focus on is diversity—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, among others," says Jim Foliek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. "What I hear about from our members is there are a number of more intimate groups, a dozen to 25 people in a meeting."
Groups that size can find a wide variety of spaces for cellar dinners and barrel tasting tours, and many seek an educational wine experience, according to Foliek.
Even Southern California boasts its own Temecula wine region. At Ponte Family Estate, the Barrel Room is a restored Mission building that boasts 1,344 square feet of meeting space.
The Willamette Valley has been dubbed the next Napa Valley by some wine enthusiasts and is Oregon’s largest wine region, stretching over 100 miles from Portland to Eugene. With a cooler climate than California, parts of the valley are home to world-class Pinot Noir and high-quality Pinot Gris.
"It’s all about Pinot Noir," says Kati Focareto, private event manager at Ponzi Vineyards in Beaverton. "We have that perfect environment for growing Pinot Noir."
At Ponzi Vineyards there is private event space next to the tasting room. Other options include hosting dinners out in the vineyard, in combination with a vineyard tour.
"The most popular event is social wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres," Focareto says. "Some other things we do are a little different. The bocce ball court a lot of times is a good team-building competitive exercise. In the spring, we can arrange a wine-tasting seminar and blending seminar led by a winemaker with an opportunity to make their own blend. It’s fun for people, especially if they are into wine and get taken through that process."
Similar to area wineries, SakeOne in Forest Grove features its own sake tasting room and is open to groups interested in learning more about the art of sake making.
South of Salem, Willamette Valley Vineyards is one of the largest wineries in the valley. Its Cuvee Room overlooks the vineyard and hosts up to 150, while its Cabernet Lounge can accommodate up to 40.
The Salem CVB can organize tour packages for groups and also offers a GPS-programmed wine tour.
At the heart of Washington state’s wine country lies the Yakima Valley. There is evidence that wine grapes were planted in the upper Yakima Valley as early as 1868, and today there are more than 12,000 vineyard acres and over 70 wineries in the valley, most of them small family operations.
"It’s the oldest wine region in the state, and the same latitude as France so it is prime grape-growing country," says Katie Heaverlo, director of tourism for the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
At the southern end of the Yakima Valley, the town of Prosser is the birthplace of Washington wine and the home to some of the state’s oldest wineries. Groups can take a crash course in the region’s wines at Vintner Village, a 12-acre stretch of land just off Interstate 82 with more than a half-dozen tasting rooms within walking distance of each other.
At the very end of the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain is its own American Viticulture Area and home to many of the state’s most celebrated vineyards and wineries.
Many of the wineries in the Valley, such as Agate Field Vineyard and Two Mountain Winery, can host winemaker dinners.
"We can set groups up with a catering company or specific restaurant and do a specific meal," says Heaverlo. "We can do vineyard tours—they go through the winery production facility with the winemaker."
The Yakima Valley region also features several wine-related annual events, such as Red Wine and Chocolate, Spring Barrel Tasting and Thanksgiving in Wine Country, when over 50 wineries hold open house, offering a chance to meet winemakers and chefs, and taste library wines and new releases.
Outside Seattle, Woodinville wine country features notable wineries, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose Manor House can host 60 for receptions, and Columbia Winery, housed in a Victorian mansion, which can also host events.
British Columbia is home to wineries and vineyards on both sides of the Cascades. To the west of the mountain range, wineries are located in the Vancouver Island Region, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley Region. To the east of the Cascades lie the Okanagan Valley and Similkameen Valley wine regions.
"About 25 years ago, the wine region really started to take off," says Patti Ogden, proprietor for Okanagan Wine Country Tours, adding that Mission Hill Winery was the first to put the region on the world map, for its award-winning Chardonnay.
"We’ve been in business for 12 years and knew a lot of people who started the wineries. It is growing by leaps and bounds. I think we’re still so small it’s a jewel in the middle of nowhere, but starting to be discovered," says Ogden, whose company covers five different Okanagan wine regions—the Kelowna area, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, Oliver and Osoyoos.
The tour company can arrange for blending seminars and blind tastings, both of which can be used for team-building efforts. Culinary courses are also popular.
"They can make a black box creation, where the group is given ingredients and a certain amount of time to put something fabulous together," Ogden says, adding that the finished products are judged based on presentation, taste and creativity, and are paired with wines.
VIP services for groups can include private tastings or tours with a wine expert, proprietor or the wine-maker; barrel tastings at specific wineries; and reserve wine tastings.
There is also an option for small incentives to take a float plane winery tour, flying above the Okanagan Valley to Osoyoos, hiring a limo to visit wineries from there and working back up to Kelowna.
On Vancouver Island, the two main wine areas are the Saanich Peninsula and the Cowichan Valley, which is the island’s heartland in terms of wine.
"About 20 wineries have started in last 20 years—wine and epicurean tourism is really growing in that area," says Bruce Cooke-Dallin, proprietor of Vineseekers tour company. "It’s a new startup for Vancouver Island but growing quickly."
Not as well known as its counterparts, Idaho has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to wineries. Home to roughly half of Idaho’s 38 wineries, the Snake River Valley is at the core of Idaho’s wine country.
The Koenig Distillery & Winery offers educational tours showcasing its brandy and wine production. Informative tours are followed by complimentary wine tasting in the tasting room, with views of the surrounding orchards and the Snake River.
Idaho’s oldest winery is Ste. Chapelle Winery. Groups can host a formal wine tasting and tour or attend the Ste. Chapelle Winery Concert Series, which has become an Idaho mainstay.