12 Feb Down Under Goes to Hollywood
Lights. Camera. Action. How to create remarkable wine experiences.
Robin Shaw knocks them dead with kangaroo videos.
As seen in WBM – Jul/Aug 2019
How does an Australian find the courage to step up to the podium at the annual Sovos Ship Compliant Wine Summit in Napa and speak about wine tourism to people from one of the world’s richest wine regions? In the audience were people from E&J Gallo, Mondavi and Mumm – people whose wineries command the kind of tasting fees that could put a down payment on a house in Sydney.
Back when I was planning the talk, I thought that Lights. Camera. Action. How to Create Remarkable Wine Experiences was a great title. That’s until I realised that the staff of Francis Ford Coppola – yeah, the winery of the guy who directed The Godfather – would be in the audience.
Fortunately, I remembered that Australia also has a legendary film culture to draw on.
That’s right. I showed them a Skippy video. Not the Skippy video from the 70’s, but a compilation of memes: Skippy punching his brother in a suburban street; Skippy wrestling a dog then getting bitch slapped by its six-foot owner; and Skippy beating up a para glider as he comes into land. Soon, all those important Californians were howling with laughter.
Once I had their attention, I took them on a journey to the Old World. To places where vines are over a thousand years old. Places like Georgia that have made wine for 8,000 years in clay vessels called qvevri (conveniently, the Georgian website has an audio button so I could practise saying it). Places like the ultra-modern wineries of Rioja Alavesa. My message: the Old World is catching on to this New World concept of wine tourism and can beat us at our own game. Because they have something we don’t: History. Heritage. Time. They’ve been at it longer and their stories run deep.
In the New World we’ve done such a good job educating consumers about the nuances of wine that their palates have developed a thirst for new and different styles. The same trends that are driving interest in locally produced alternative varieties are also driving interest in discovering – or rediscovering – European wines. Modern consumers are curious and increasingly well travelled, so they are not only cutting their teeth on local wines, but are also discovering the ancient lands and cultures they come from. These travellers are not just interested in crossing a destination off their bucket list – they want to immerse themselves in the destination. They want to take home more than artfully posed Instagram photos. They’re after stories, peak moments and shareable memories.
How do we help tourists create those memories? To make something stick, we have to engage both their senses and their minds. McLaren Vale’s d’Arenberg Cube is a good example, taking people on a journey that’s part education and part entertainment, which keeps them interested over five floors of a building modelled on the Rubik’s Cube. (Just as few people ever solved that puzzle – me included – my Napa audience couldn’t quite get their tongues around the Cenosilicaphobic label when I displayed the word on screen.)
As I reeled off other wine tourism examples from around the world, I asked who had been to each region, and was surprised at how few hands went up (I shouldn’t have been; only 36 percent of Americans even have passports). Even more surprising – and humbling – was the fact that people were furiously taking notes. This stuff was new to them, and it clearly resonated.
Following the Summit, I visited wineries in Napa and Sonoma and was privileged to be a guest at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County for two nights. Breakfast for one was served at the bar adjacent the restaurant where culinary director Tim Bodell learned the fine art of spreading Vegemite on well-buttered toast (yes, I’m a proud Aussie who travels everywhere with her own tube). In return, I received an omelette made from the eggs of hens residing 50 feet from the kitchen. This place is authentic. The people are authentic. The staff get looked after and it shows in their length of service, loyalty and genuine love for Francis and the business he has created.
Janiene Ullrich, the executive vice president, Direct to Consumer, for The Family Coppola, has been with the company 19 years, and knows that the winery is sometimes called ‘adult Disneyland’ or ‘Francis’ folly’. In fact, it is neither – even if it does have the car from the movie Tucker rotating in the retail area and the model ships from Marie Antoinette on display in the upstairs tasting area. A winery full of movie memorablia may sound theme park-ish, but it isn’t, because wine is still at the heart of the company.
Coppola has led the way in the wine industry for decades. They were the first to introduce canned wine (2003) and remain a leader in the quality canned wine category. The company introduced a ‘cannabis lifestyle brand’ with the release of The Grower’s Series by Francis Ford Coppola in 2018. “Wine and cannabis are two ancient and bounteous gifts of Mother nature, linked by great care, terroir and temperateness,” he said at the time.
On my second afternoon at Coppola Winery I took my laptop and sat by the resort-style pool. Although the weather was mid-20s, there were plenty of people in the pool or sunbathing. A young couple beside me had their newly-minted baby and parents with them and I asked why they had chosen to come here. Joe told me his parents were visiting from the East Coast, and rather than choose a traditional resort, they decided a day at Coppola – with private cabine, loungers, welcome Sofia Blanc de Blancs mini-cans of wine for the adults and access to a poolside bar for $185 – was much better value. And that’s how Coppola has become a must-visit destination for the visiting friends and relatives market.
Coppola attracts a new crowd – people who are often intimidated by the grandeur and price points of nearby Napa, but who still want to learn about wine. They’re not connoisseurs, but they’ll join the wine club. Many of them love food. Coppola’s restaurant, Rustic, offers dishes that Francis has personally approved. Each has a story from either his childhood or his travels, and the retail area features products and recipes that are utilised in the dining experience. Local club members show up every Wednesday night for Wine Family Wednesdays where they are acknowledged by the staff and treated like family. This combination of merchandise, quirky memorabilia, wine at various price points, food that feeds the soul and multiple outdoor activities allows visitors to self-select the type of experience that suits their mood and their purpose.
Coppola wasn’t my only memorable experience on this visit. Lynmar Estate in Sebastopol was one of the most beautifully natural cellar door environments I’ve ever encountered. Beds of flowers bursting with colour and humming with bees and bird life surrounded the terrace and outdoor tasting tables while Far Niente in Oakville offered great storytelling from a charismatic, knowledgeable guide followed by a sublime wine and food matching experience. Going back to my Lights. Camera. Action. analogy, each of these venues delivered on every component.
I can see the irony of using Coppola as an example to illustrate my Lights. Camera. Action. approach because, in reality, aren’t all cellar doors really mini movie sets with directors, producers, actors, props, a stage and an audience willing to pay for a ticket? What they’re offering wine visitors is the chance to feel like a star for a day – welcome and valued.
So, while Australia may not have loads of Hollywood directors running wineries, world class warmth is something we can manage. Plus we have something they don’t – Skippy.
By Robin Shaw, Wine Tourism Australia