Outlook Bright for 2012 Midwest Wine Tourism
Record-high gas prices this spring threatened to deflate plans for tasting rooms to welcome a steady stream of visitors coaxed by unusually mild temperatures.
But, according to tourism officials in wine regions throughout the Midwest, wine lovers don’t mind paying current gas prices, as high as $4.25 a gallon in some areas. Midwest wine tourism officials interviewed last week reported no serious declines in the number of travelers compared to this time last year.
‘Our market is extremely resistant to gas prices. For food and wine travelers, it doesn’t seem to alter their plans much,” says Mike Norton, media-relations director for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. ‘We’ve seen our visitor numbers go up as gas prices go up. We might be getting people who would have gone to Europe instead,” he said.
For some, a weekend trip to Traverse City in Northern Michigan or the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in Southern Illinois is a fraction of the cost for a longer vacation, and the cost to drive for a day, versus springing for airfare, is less expensive.
Mild spring temperatures, stretching into the 80s on some days, inspired those in wine tourism to open their doors for business much sooner than in 2011 and 2010.
‘I got started a little bit earlier this year,” said Jillian Miller, who chauffeurs people in private vans to Shawnee Hills tasting rooms through her company, Shawnee Shuttle, in Carbondale, Ill. ‘To be honest, I haven’t seen any impact yet (from high gas prices). I’ve had a lot of repeat visitors.”
Rockie Rick, who runs bus tours in the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country via Fruitful Vine Tours, noticed a similar uptick. ‘The past 10 days have been very busy,” he said. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a night vs. day difference, but we’ve seen a continual increase in winery traffic ” At one Michigan winery — Lemon Creek Winery, in Berrien Springs — he’s noticed increased traffic which might be due to the winery’s recent construction.
According to Kathy Lemon at Lemon Creek, an additional 40-by-20 foot tasting room will open soon. “We outgrew our tasting room — and we just enlarged it five years ago. The new addition will have an extra 30-foot bar to accommodate tourists arriving in buses and limos” she said, adding that 50 visitors will now be able to taste at once.
Also in Southern Michigan, The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival on June 16th will be held on the sand at Weko Beach. Last year’s event drew over 4,000 wine lovers. An earlier festival (Earth Day Wine & Food Celebration, April 20-22) at Lemon Creek’s Grand Haven tasting room hopes to incite spring tourism earlier in the season.
To combat high gas prices, the Ohio Wine Producers Association developed a promotion with Speedway gasoline stations. Speedway gas cards will be given away at mobile events via a spin-the-wheel game for interested travelers. Another partnership, with Choice Hotels, offers savings of up to 20 percent on hotel stays in Ohio this spring, with a promo ad featuring grapes hanging from the vines.
‘In March there were quite a few more Ohio wine tourists than in previous years,” says Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, noting that some wine trails in the state are hosting ‘spring fling” events. With Ohio Wine Month in June, the goal is to kick-start interest well before Memorial Day.
The crescendo of the Ohio wine tourism season is the Vintage Ohio Wine Festival which draws between 25,000 and 30,000 attendees. Vintage Ohio will be held this year on August 3rd and 4th in Kirtland, Ohio near Cleveland.
With the high season of summer on the horizon, Midwestern wine regions are rolling out new offerings to entice travelers this spring. For example, three new tasting rooms from experienced vintners are opening in the Traverse City region. Boathouse Vineyards, on Lake Leelanau, opened a tasting facility last summer. Verterra Winery in the heart of Leland debuted last fall. Its tasting room opened for the season on April 6. Another new winery, Brengman Brothers, just west of Traverse City on the Leelanau Peninsula, opened a tasting room during March of last year.
Faced with no major road construction en route to Traverse City — work on the main North-South highway, U.S. 131, snagged many travelers’ plans last year — the area is ready to welcome visitors. The Traverse City Wine & Art Festival was bumped up to June; previously it was held in August. ‘It’s the perfect place to stroll around with a glass of wine and a small plate of food,” said Norton.
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail also welcomes two relatively new wineries: Lucas Bros. Honker Hill Winery is embarking on its third spring season, and Rustle Hill Winery, which was unveiled four years ago, says Carol Hoffman, sales manager of Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau.
Similarly, The Chiselled Grape Winery in Grafton, Wisconsin, only 23 miles from downtown Milwuakee, will experience its first season. Fisher King Wines in Mount Horeb, which began making wine in 2006, ushered in a new tasting room last fall, hoping to attract visitors from nearby Spring Green as well as day-trippers from Madison.
In Northern Illinois, the Ottawa 2 Rivers Wine Fest has been expanded from two to three days. (June 8-10 this year.) Last years festival drew 1,500 attendees and Megan Pressnal of the Illinois Grape Growers Association is hoping for 3,000 guests this year. The number of wineries at the Fest has been reduced to 20 this year to provide more elbow room, she said. As an added attraction, live Maine lobster will be served all three days.
To help new visitors to Missouri plan their trip, the Missouri Wine and Grape Board just published the 2012 Missouri Wine Brochure, complete with smartphone apps. Since the last guide was published in 2010, some 14 new wineries have opened in Missouri.
There are now 115 wineries in Missouri by one estimate. Ann Miller, Marketing Manager of St. James Winery, which draws 90,000 visitors a year, believes that the outlook for ’12 and beyond is postitive. “As Missouri’s largest winery, we think the growth of the number of wineries and regional wine tourism is great for all parties. More wineries means that the Midwest wine culture is growing and more people are enjoying what we have to offer.”
Home page photograph courtesy of Oliver Winery, Bloomington, Indiana on the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail.