The pros, cons and subsidies of wine tourism in France

Winemaker Jonathan Hesford reflects on ‘oenotourisme’ growth and the impact on his business

French wineries can access financial grants if they create a tourism offering

Oenotourisme, as it is known here, has been going through a bit of a revolution in France over the last 10 years.

Maybe revolution is a bit of an exaggeration. More of an evolution.

In previous decades, French wineries were not that interested in appealing to tourists. Only the Champagne houses and certain chateau in Bordeaux and Provence made any effort.

The rest were happy to sell to passers-by or those keen enough to make an appointment.

The norm in my region (Roussillon) was just a sign on the roadside saying ‘Dégustation - Vente’ and someone (hopefully) available to do an impromptu tasting.

No parking, no opening hours, no prices and no facilities.

A far cry from the wine-tourism offerings found in California, South Africa or Australia, where wineries had built quite impressive visitor centres with tasting booths, restaurants, gift-shops, conference rooms, guided tours and dozens of staff in liveried T-shirts teaching people about their wine.

The reasons were historical.

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French would buy by the case unlike tourists

French people don’t, in general, visit wineries to learn about wine or have an experience.

They know what wine is. They go to taste and buy, usually by the case and based on a personal recommendation. Therefore the tastings were free and prices were the same, or less than one would expect to pay in a shop.

Only a small percentage of innovative wineries offered something for tourists to do. Most were not really interested in attracting visitors who would only buy a couple of bottles, if anything.

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French wine authorities learnt from the New World

In the New World, wineries needed to create their own wine-culture and promote their regions. One way of doing that was to get people to visit them.

Most New World wine regions have a tourist board which maps out vine trails, has a central visitor centre, links with tour operators and lists dozens of attractive wineries to visit, many with restaurants and even accommodation.

Some of these have become quite exclusive.

In Napa Valley today, the average price of a tasting is $80 and the average price of the bottles available to buy at the cellar door exceeds $100.

The French wine authorities realised they were missing a trick.

Wine tourism brought subsidies

France is the most visited country in the world and wine is one of its most iconic products. For about 10 years now they have offered financial grants to wineries willing to create a tourism offering.

As farmers love subsidies, some of these tourist facilities were really just property developments or hastily-planned ‘fields of dreams’ projects. But it is true to say that the number of wineries doing wine-tourism has vastly increased.

At the same time, regional wine promotion organisations have created quality designations that wineries can apply for, supposedly to help tourists choose the best places to visit.

This is great for visitors wanting more and better choices but has it really been of benefit to the wine industry?

I’m not so sure.

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My winery was penalised for innovation

We were one of those innovative wineries that have always offered tourist activities.

We were the first winery in our village, other than the Cave Cooperative, to have either regular opening hours or a website, and one of only a handful in the region to take visitors on educational walks through the vines.

When the regional wine board introduced their ‘Quality’ certification system, only those wineries who had created a new, subsidised facility were included. It took us several years to get re-listed as one of the wineries to visit.

In the meantime the ‘official’ list of accredited wineries was widely distributed to all the regional tourism websites and publications. I’m sure we are not the only winery to have been bypassed by the regularisation of wine tourism.

Third-party companies muscled into the market

Public-sector websites tend to get out of date very quickly so some of those resources have the wrong opening times, incorrect pricing or even list wineries that have closed down.

Many of the wineries which entered the oenotourism market had never done it before. While some made a real effort to create attractive and enjoyable experiences, hiring professional staff, others relied on cheap apprentices with only superficial wine knowledge or tried to do it in their spare time.

The result was a drop in the average level of satisfaction from visitors. More isn’t always better.

Also, third-party companies muscled into the market, as they always do when there are government subsidies.

I was getting a phone call or email every week at one point asking me to promote my activities on a new wine tourism website. They would either ask for an inscription fee of several hundred euros or take 15-20% fee on any booking we received.

Even though it’s time-consuming to replicate the same information on multiple websites, it sounded like a good way to increase visitors.

In reality those agencies just paid Google to get their listings placed at the top of the search results and flooded the internet with their adverts.

The result was that our direct bookings were drastically reduced and the number of people calling in at the winery after doing a Google search fell dramatically.

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Spend public money on TV promotion for wine regions

Although there are now a lot more wineries that welcome tourists and provide activities, many of the experiences are formulaic.

Where once a visit to a French winery could be a fascinating insight into the life, history and unique wines of the vigneron, these days it can be a scripted speech given by a temporary seasonal worker followed by an attempt to sell ‘trophy’ bottles – wines that are only available at the cellar door and at inflated prices.

An experience reminiscent of the more disappointing visits one might encounter in California.

I’m not convinced that the initiatives and subsidies have increased the market for wine tourism.

More wineries are competing for roughly the same number of visitors. It would have been wiser to spend public money promoting the wine regions on TV and in other media.

Wineries now host interesting events

The evolution is not all negative though. It’s now a lot easier to find a winery that has a restaurant or provides activities like a horse-ride or walking tour through the vineyards.

Many of the wineries that created visitor facilities use them to host interesting events like music concerts, cookery workshops and wine-tasting courses.

Unlike the regular wine tourism offerings, these special events appeal to French wine consumers and have encouraged people to visit their local wineries rather than just drive past them on their way to buy wine at the supermarket.

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