Four Pioneers of Global Wine Tourism
It is no secret that wine lovers have visited wineries throughout the ages. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most famous early wine tourist. He had a passion for Bordeaux, especially for wines from “Chateau de la Fite” and “Chateau Margau,” as he wrote in his journals.
Today these estates are called Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margaux, and they make some of the world's most coveted wine. However, it wasn't until the latter part of the twentieth century that wineries began to be built with hospitality in mind. This was a revolutionary concept, and these four individuals were at the forefront of this new movement.
Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley, California
Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at the age of 94, and he will be remembered not just as the father of California wine but also as the father of wine tourism. When he built his winery in 1966, the first in Napa Valley since the end of Prohibition, the cards in many ways were stacked against him. Americans were not drinking much quality wine at the time, and thanks to the devastating effects of Prohibition, the rest of the wine world had practically forgotten about California wine.
Mondavi knew he had to find an innovative way to bring people to his winery, so he designed it with hospitality in mind. He began offering free tours to the public, instructing them on the finer points of grape growing and winemaking, and promising them a tasting of his wines at the end. He or one of his sons would often stand at the winery entrance motioning to cars speeding along Highway 29 to pull in to the winery.
Robert Mondavi didn't stop there. So successful was his tour program that he began offering cooking classes, in which great chefs would prepare fine cuisine in the winery kitchen and explain how it complemented a variety of wines. He also instituted a summer jazz series in 1969 to promote not just his winery and Napa Valley as a whole but to raise money for charity. The Robert Mondavi Winery Summer Festival, as the jazz series is now called, continues to this day.
Mondavi's goal was nothing less than to rebuild a wine culture in the United States. In the process of achieving this goal, he unintentionally created a model for how wineries and wine regions could reach out to savvy wine lovers and prospective wine lovers.
Chateau Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, France
The French have no problem making extraordinary wines, but they have been a bit slow to incorporate tourism into the day-to-day life of their winemaking regions. In the 1950s a passionate Russian-born, French-educated wine merchant named Alexis Lichine purchased a Bordeaux property which he dubbed Chateau Prieure-Lichine and advertised his new tasting room on billboards outside. The neighbors were horrified.
Jean-Michel Cazes was more successful. After overhauling the winemaking at Chateau Lynch-Bages in the 1970s, Cazes purchased a neighboring estate and turned it into a hotel complete with a restaurant staffed by a world-class chef. Cazes was also instrumental in turning the sleepy village of Bages into something more dynamic by helping establish a literary competition, a marathon, and even the occasional concert. His inspiration was Robert Mondavi, whom he met in 1978.
Bordeaux will never be like Napa Valley, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Napa's winemaking tradition is a century old; Bordeaux's goes back 1,000 years. When visiting Bordeaux or any other region in France, it is important to appreciate this history, and thanks to innovators such as Jean-Michel Caves, you can appreciate this legacy in style.
Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia
Before Denis Horgan took possession of 500 acres of land near Margaret River in Western Australia in the 1960s, this area was mainly known for its surfing, and beer, not wine, was the beverage of choice. Then he received word from a friend that a California vintner named Robert Mondavi was looking to invest in the region, as it had recently been deemed excellent for grape growing.
Horgan began planting vines, and soon his Chardonnays were catching the attention of the global wine press. Like Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, he recruited different artists to design the labels of select bottles each year. Horgan also built a restaurant, one of the first winery restaurants in Margaret River to serve dinner on Saturday nights.
Horgan will arguably best be remembered for bringing world-class entertainment to his Leeuwin Estate, a winery so far removed from metropolitan areas that in the early years of his now famous concert series he pitched tents to house some of his visitors. He recently built an airstrip to handle all of his visitors, and future plans include a golf course and hotel.
Fairview Wines, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Even though the policies of apartheid have been officially repealed, the cultural damage still lingers, and it has kept many tourists away from this stunningly beautiful wine region.
Charles Back refused to let history deny him his ambitions. Since the 1930s his family has farmed a property north of Stellenbosch called Fairview, and by the late 1970s, wine grapes dominated the estate. Back's stroke of genius was his sense of humor, and this is most evident in wines he created with names similar to their more famous counterparts. He released wines called Bored Doe (Bordeaux), Goats do Roam (Cotes du Rhone), and Goat Door (Cote d'Or-Burgundy), and they have become the bestselling South African wines in the Untied States.
The French did sue Back for trademark violations, as his wines' names sounded so similar to theirs. Back prevailed, and his goats are still roaming.
Keeping with the goat theme, Back's Fairview Wines estate has a goat tower which welcomes guests to the property. There is also a restaurant, and it is packed most nights, but it is Back's unique combination of marketing prowess and quality wines that have propelled Fairview Wines into one of South Africa's most visited estates.