By: Ryan Durant and Kyle Hildebrant
Little more than 50 years ago, a handful of families planted the roots of what would become a billion-dollar pinot noir industry in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The farmland where they harvested the first pinot noir grapes would come to serve as the epicenter of a region with a world-class reputation for high quality, pastoral landscapes and intimate, small-scale production – one able to attract entrepreneurs, artisans, corporate wine brands and tourists in equal measures.
As the Oregon wine industry has grown, visitors have come in droves: wine tourism alone now accounts for $787 million of economic activity in the state – a 162% increase over three years earlier, according to a report by the Oregon Wine Board. In the Willamette Valley, that growth and interest has translated into increased competition and options for visitors, from tasting rooms to wine-centered lodging, restaurants, festivals and events, and more.
And it’s not the only wine region that’s experiencing similar changes – between 2013 and 2016, wine tourism surged 10-15 percent to a total of $22 billion in economic activity worldwide. In the U.S., 398 new wineries opened in 2018 alone. As competition has increased, so too has the need for companies in the wine tourism industry to hyper-focus on targeted customer segments and tailor experiences designed to bring their brands to life.
Consumers’ relationships with wine growers are no longer limited to tasting rooms and bottle sales. The real opportunity lies in creating experiences that reinforce a brand ethos. Every interaction with a winery – be it an exclusive chef or winemaker dinner, barrel tasting or member event — must be the physical embodiment of a brand and involve all of the human senses to forge a long-term relationship. Customers want not only to taste the wine but also learn about the history of the brand. They are buying an experience and a relationship, one that is reinforced at every touchpoint. The design of everything from photography to furniture provides cues about that experience.
Consider the case of Alit Wines, a direct-to-consumer winery based in Dundee, Oregon that aims to demystify what’s in a bottle of wine. Everything from the design of the label to the starkly minimalist modern wine room reflect its story. The brand has intentionally focused on a narrow audience largely underserved by the wine industry: Millennials attracted to an affordable wine crafted by hand with old-world methods (biodynamic dry farming, for example, using native wild yeast, a lack of additives). It regularly hosts events at its tasting room such as artisan craft markets, food trucks in its parking lot and trivia nights. The grower is also cultivating a member-based approach, like a CSA for wine, that charges an upfront fee for access to bottles priced at cost. Members can attend gatherings that create a sense of community and learn about Alit’s winemaking process.
Oregon’s Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard has also focused on a narrow audience, although one very different from that of Alit. An intimate villa set above 100 acres of pinot noir vines, the property is frequented by adept travelers and culinary connoisseurs who use the picturesque Tuscan-style mansion as a jumping-off point for exploring the valley. It offers highly tailored experiences like personalized vineyard tours and one-on-one interactions with its winemakers, chef and staff. The inn’s carefully curated wine list showcases the best of nearby winemakers for guests to enjoy during their stay. It also hosts corporate events and chef dinners, all designed to bring together the finest in food and dining in the Willamette Valley. Everything from the bespoke winemaker experiences to the tufted leather couches reinforce Black Walnut’s desire to offer an immersive experience in the heart of Oregon wine country.
Like Alit and Black Walnut, brands can tailor an experience that aligns closely with their story. Here’s how to start:
- Identify who you’re trying to engage with: Narrowly define your audience, get a deep understanding of who they are, and what motivates them to act.
- Define the experience you’re trying to create for that audience. It’s OK to exclude people outside your target audience. There’s an increasing sense of restraint and focus – anyone with any stake in the wine tourism in the valley will increasingly need to define themselves more narrowly to stand out.
- Set an expectation for your audience: What will you feel like when you get here, and what will you do? Successful brands use explicit communication – the things that are overtly said and written – in addition to the implicit – the choices that align the brand with a certain type of experience. Alit’s tasting room, for example, features comfortable, communal spaces that bring people together, while Black Walnut is set up to foster moments of calm and introspection.
From the founding families of Oregon wine to newer startups like Alit, branding is playing an increasingly powerful role in wine tourism. Wine businesses must start by narrowly identifying who the brand is trying to engage – being willing to leave some consumers out – and creating a personal connection at every touchpoint. Vineyards, tasting rooms, specialty inns and other wine industry players that embrace this parallel will leave a legacy that comes from creating unforgettable, life-long memories.