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Welcome to the Napa Nation

American winemakers from every state in the union are trying to emulate the tourism success of the Napa Valley

By Dan Shaw and Anna Bahney  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sure, the vineyards of California's Napa and Sonoma valleys have become tourist magnets in the past couple of decades, but who goes to Michigan, Kansas, Texas and even North Dakota to sample wine? Plenty of people, it turns out, as a number of unlikely states have turned to wine producing as their latest tourist attraction. One Texas winery has set up a tasting bar in Terminal A of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, as seen on Wednesday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Last Sunday afternoon, Monalee and Kent Smith and 26 of their friends were out in the American wine country, exploring the vineyards and stopping for tastings at various wineries. Off in the distance, rolling hills arched above a winding river, their colors an early fall combination of amber, rust and gold. Church steeples peeked out through a canopy of trees. Along a winding two-lane highway and its tributaries were almost 50 bed-and-breakfasts, many filled for the weekend, and the antiques stores and restaurants in the quaint nearby village were doing a brisk business.

Sounds like a typical day in the fabled Napa Valley, doesn't it?

Well, this was not Napa, or even the Sonoma Valley, but a somewhat unlikely wine region just off US Interstate 70 in Missouri. The town was Hermann, Missouri, not St. Helena, California. The river was the Missouri, not the Russian. And the grapes were Nortons, not cabernets.

"We've never been to Napa," Monalee Smith said, "but we are pretending that we are this weekend." Hermann is a three-hour drive from the couple's home in Overland Park, Kansas, and the trip, the first the couple had made to Hermann, seemed to be a success.

"We're already booked for next year," Monalee Smith said.

That's the kind of endorsement the winemakers and tourism officials of Missouri are looking for. Not to mention their counterparts in states like Virginia and Oregon, and even such unlikely wine-producing centers as Texas and North Dakota. There are now roughly 3,000 commercial vineyards in the US, and wineries in all 50 states, even Alaska. (Care for a glass of birch sap wine, anyone?) Along with producing wines for regional consumption, many of the vineyards and wineries are trying to market themselves as travel destinations.

When the people involved in promoting these wineries speak about their aspirations, it quickly becomes clear what their role model is.

"We all think of Napa, of course," said Linda Jones, the executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. "They have developed a great tourist product."

While some states can apparently claim a certain wine pedigree (Missouri was the second-largest wine-producing state in the country before Prohibition, just behind New York) and lush surroundings that rival California's landscape, some have to try a little harder to attract the traveling oenophile.

Thus the snowshoe treks through the Leelanau Peninsula vineyards in northern Michigan, near Traverse City.

Started last year as a way to heighten the visibility of Michigan's wineries during the off-season, the Snowshoe Stomp consists of two races -- one for two miles, the other for four -- through vineyards that have been cleared in advance by snowmobiles. Last February, 300 people participated in the event, held on a sunny Valentine's Day weekend when the temperature hit 3 below Fahrenheit (-20?C).

"Sales do go up at the tasting rooms when we have these events," said Rick Coates, a spokesman for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association, "but more importantly, it provides visitors with an experience they will take back home with them and turn them into repeat customers for Michigan wine."

Wine-related tourism brings in about US$16 million a year, according to Michigan's official tourism agency.

Bonnie Supina, a tasting-room manager at Chateau de Leelanau in Suttons Bay, Michigan, said the snowshoe trek isn't an alcohol-fueled event -- tastings are scheduled after the races are over.

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