Even as the economy struggles, one winery in Oregon is hoping to capitalize on travelers looking to visit a wine region that's less pricey than Napa. Willamette Valley Vineyards opened a new wine center last month in the town of McMinnville, offering guidance to wine travelers on a budget.
The center is the brainchild of winery president Jim Bernau and one of his employees, Meg Murray, who is running the operation. Located 30 minutes southwest of Portland, the center is meant to serve as a first stop for wine travelers. Complimentary wine tastings are offered daily, as well as introductory information on the valley, including Oregon appellation maps, soil samples and information on sustainable growing practices.
Willamette Valley Vineyards' winery and tasting room are located further south in the valley, just below the town of Salem. Bernau claims that his tasting room is one of the state's most popular, selling 12,000 cases yearly at retail. But he feels the new center will introduce even more people to the winery. "It is likely we will come in contact with wine enthusiasts in McMinnville who otherwise would miss us," he said.
During the recession, travel has suffered in many wine regions. Todd Davidson, CEO of the tourism commission Travel Oregon, coordinates promotion of the state's $8.4 billion a year tourism industry, supporting 93,000 employees. He said that Oregon is seeing a drop in international travelers. However, what he called "rubber-tire tourists"—those from the region and parts of Canada—are still visiting regularly. They are shopping for a deal.
"We are still seeing folks travel, but they are looking for more value, so rates need to be competitive," Davidson said. "The Willamette Valley Vineyards center provides a critical infrastructure to travel-related spending as a concierge service. Visitors can access information on dozens and dozens of wineries in the Willamette Valley, learn about operations at those sites and try some wines before going to visit wineries."
Willamette wineries have struggled with tourism issues in the past. While many hope their region will grow into a wine destination, there are fears that more visitors could mean resorts and developments replacing vineyards on valuable land.
The center allays those concerns with its downtown location. McMinnville is home to nine different winery tasting rooms and hosts the International Pinot Noir Conference each year. "Downtown McMinnville has been faring well so far in this economic downturn, but I think it will continue to be difficult for a while,” said Kris Gullo, manager of the McMinnville Downtown Association. "The Willamette Valley Vineyards Wine Center will be a wonderful addition to the downtown. The whole concept of education and focusing on the 'wine geek' in all of us really fits with the quality of wines produced here."