Tourists continue to come to Sonoma County wineries even as tasting fees rise

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Wine tourism remained relatively strong in Sonoma County over the summer, with visitors continuing to come to sip lush Pinot Noir and swirl brilliant Chardonnay as the pandemic waned and fall arrived.

Crowds have returned to most places, but not to pre-pandemic levels, according to industry data and interviews with local winemakers.

A survey of 58 Sonoma County tasting rooms found attendance levels in August were up nearly 12% from the same time in 2021 and corresponding tasting room sales were up 12% , according to marketing firm Community Benchmark.

The slower rebound is no surprise.

Tourism officials said it would be a few years before they surpass 2019 levels as tourists return in full, especially international visitors. Hotel occupancy levels in Sonoma County over the summer were near 2021 levels, while total passenger numbers at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in the first eight months of this year has increased by almost 71% compared to 2021.

Another factor: more vineyards have set up tastings on a only by appointment with a tight labor supply in North Bay. This decision discouraged additional walk-ins and larger crowds from focusing on a more personal experience that can garner sign-ups for wine club memberships.

Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg is an example of this new normal.

The winery, known for its wide range of local varietals and increasingly popular red and white blends under its new Upshot label, has seen a 20% increase in visitors this year compared to 2021, said Christopher O ‘Gorman, director of communications.

The level is still down 18% compared to 2019, even if the cellar accepts visits without an appointment if space is available.

“We anticipate a slow recovery from the pandemic. And that’s what we see,” O’Gorman said of the visitors. They were greeted by a $1 million renovation of its tasting room completed at the start of the pandemic.

The winery sold out its three summer concerts which “were hugely popular”, as well as hosting smaller events “which were more hit or miss” given the staffing issues, he added.

“There was a lot to do in Sonoma County. There was a lot to choose from,” said O’Gorman, a Healdsburg native who particularly noted the uptick in locally held weddings this summer. “We had to market and execute the events well. That was really an important part of it.

That sentiment was shared elsewhere in Sonoma County.

Benziger family estate at Glen Ellen and sister Imagery Estate Winery have seen an average increase in visitor numbers of 40% between the two locations, said Brian Reeves, vice president of direct-to-consumer sales.

Benziger has traditionally been a popular spot with its tram tours through its estate highlighting its biodynamic farming practices, in which the earth’s ecosystem is balanced through acts such as administering compost and specialized nutrients as opposed to to harsh chemicals.

“We didn’t really set up our tours in a big way until late last year. Also, we couldn’t find any staff,” Reeves said.

Benziger is still accepting walk-in visitors because it wants to continue to be accessible to all types of customers beyond well-heeled visitors, he said. “That’s a big reason why we see more people here,” he said.

Conversely, visitor numbers at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sevastopol have remained broadly stable, though that’s because the family winery implemented an appointment-only visitation system in 2019 before the pandemic, said Joy Sterling, CEO.

“We don’t know of a decline,” Sterling said.

Its objective is to offer special outings throughout the year to retain new visitors and members of the wine club at the estate perched in the bucolic hills of the Vallée Verte.

Nationally, there was a small drop from May to August in winery tasting rooms that were surveyed by Wine Direct, which operates sales software for wineries.

Tasting room orders were down 6% and there was a corresponding 3% drop in money spent per visit compared to the same period in 2021, said Andrea Smalling, director of marketing for Wine Direct. But such a move doesn’t mean a “ghost town” description that was mentioned in a recent regional post, Smalling added.

“Obviously there were enough people who were willing to go to Wine Country and spend the money,” she said.

In fact, the focus on post-pandemic tours has put more emphasis on the rising costs of these tours given the financial pressures wineries face in everything from chain disruptions procurement to rising labor costs.

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