Conference Gives Wineries Lessons in Being Good Neighbors

Loudoun County welcomed the 2015 Wine Tourism Conference this week at Lansdowne Resort east of Leesburg. Thursday morning Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson welcomed the more than 200 wine and tourism industries’ attendees from all over the country and abroad.

To have the conference in Loudoun was “fan-tast-ic,” she said to approving cheers.

The first panel discussion focused on Virginia wines, and led into the second, that focused on increasing challenges for wineries around the country—including Loudoun.

The panel was moderated by Berkeley Young, owner of Young Strategies. Panelists were: Rita McLenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Council; Patrick Duffeler, founder and chairman of Williamsburg Winery; Ben Renshaw, owner of 8 Chains North Winery near Waterford; and Jay Youmans, professional wine taster, and owner and educational director of The Capital Wine School.

Where does Virginia fit in the wine scene? And how has it changed? McLenny cited the importance of Virginia’s wine industry to the state economy, its growing reputation nationwide and its importance for tourism.

“The wine industry creates a landscape; they are destinations where retail sales happen, and where people come for the experience. They come back, they bring friends and family,” she said of the state’s fifth place ranking in number of wineries and its 3,000 acres of grape production.

The most significant change over the past years, the panelists said, is the quality of Virginia wines.

Both Duffeler and Renshaw said the state was at a turning point—in terms of improving wine quality.

“We’re unstoppable at this point,” Renshaw maintained, citing the growing ability of grape growers and wine makers to deal with climate and the chemistry of grapes. “Together, they know what will grow well here.”

To Young’s question of how do winery owners turn experience into profits, Duffeler recalled when he started Williamsburg Winery, tours were given free. Eventually, the winery charged for different “wine experiences.”

Wine clubs are also part of the growing revenue stream, as are restaurants, tasting rooms and events. Wineries and vineyards have become popular wedding locales.

Youmans noted that Virginia wines have a good reputation in the United Kingdom, and U.S. wine writers will check out Virginia wines. He also noted tasting rooms have become popular “educational centers” in themselves.

Young questioned the growing trend to “festival-ization.” Are there too many events? McLenny wryly noted the pros and cons. “We’re always looking for more revenues—and festivals drive visitation,” she said, noting the search is constant to find ancillary avenues to lure visitors to a site.

That implied question—“Can something get too much of a good thing?”— was the focus of the next panel discussion: “Wine Tourism Is Ag,” moderated by Loudoun winemaker Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars near Lucketts.

The discussion has particular relevance for Loudoun’s burgeoning wine/beer and tourism industries, which are having to deal with that very question.

What was quickly apparent is that the pushback from neighbors that has surfaced recently in Loudoun, notably to the proposed B Chord Brewing Co. near Bluemont, is seen across the nation. Whether it’s from environmental groups concerned with wineries’ growth and water use, as in California, or neighborhood concerns over too much traffic on rural roads, noise, too many events, as in Maryland and Virginia—the reaction has to be dealt with, panelists said.

The panelists—Kevin Atticks, head of Maryland’s breweries, wineries and distillers’ organization; Nancy Light, vice president of Communications for the Wine Institute in California; Jim Conaway, author of a trilogy about the Napa Valley wine industry, and David King, chairman of the Virginia Wine Board and co-founder of King Family Vineyards near Crozet—said being a good neighbor was the ultimate answer.

It’s important to understand the different laws governing wine production around the country. Atticks said, noting wineries are the centers of the rural economy in Maryland.

In California, Light, who deals with public policy issues and state tourism organizations, said, “the wineries were the first to bring visitors.”
Conaway cited the 1960 establishment of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, that has managed to limit development.

But the big problem is the resistance of neighbors in Sonoma, who clamor, “Enough!” he said. While acknowledging the importance of the hospitality industry, “it’s not the wine industry,” Conaway said.

King agreed that local opposition to wine tourism is growing—“we see it here too”—citing opposition to vehicular overuse of rural roads, which could be a problem for winery staffers and deliveries. He warned that Albemarle County is looking to regulate that issue.

How to keep a winery profitable through wine production and ancillary uses, and keep it in balance with neighborhood expectations is a key question, panelists agreed.

“We see it every day,” Atticks said, noting wine production is ag-based, and if customers are interested in not just an experience, but authenticity, tasting the wines, and finding out where the grapes come from, that’s important.

Wineries can charge a lot for events, that’s part of business. Development provides new patrons who, sometimes, also are the first to complain about activities, Atticks said.

“We try to make good neighbors and talk about it in advance,” he said.

He also noted potential laws to prohibit winery growth—and suggested the solution is to work with community members.

“We have those issues—events and winery development—also in California,” Light said, citing a group that formed to codify best practices for wineries. “[Wineries] need to work within parameters, to justify their activity.”

Conaway took a purist view. “The basis is agriculture and the product is wine,” he said, urging production of top quality—and expensive—wine as the answer.

As an industry, “we need to remember many of those complaining have real complaints. You have to accommodate your neighbors.”

But King disagreed, calling that “right kind of wine tourist” approach arrogant and doomed to failure in a free market. He agreed winery owners need to make good wine, and “you do need to be a good neighbor.”

“Everyone who comes in the door is a good wine customer, potentially, if not today,” he said.

Atticks said his group’s solution is to “work with jurisdictions to allow [different] uses and with neighboring people to create a balance,” he said.

Light agreed wineries and tourism representatives need to work together to find the balance. “We had a traffic summit in Napa,” she said.

In Crozet’s fast-growing community, King said the company provides pro bono space to local schools and rescue squads for fundraisers, and has put the vineyards into a conservation easement.

When Conaway urged, “Don’t spice it up—it’s over-spiced already,” Atticks said, “Variety is the spice of life,” urging wineries and breweries to collaborate with the locavore food production movement.

“Agribusiness integration will be key.”

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