Destinations

California Experiments With Wine Tasting at Tourist Welcome Center

Dec 07, 2013 4:00 am

Skift Take

While it’s a bit of a no-brainer to include samples of the region’s wine in the tourism centers, getting food and drink into these places is hard enough that few have tried. How well this works will be interesting for other destinations that have similar offerings.

— Jason Clampet

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The first California Welcome Center to greet tourists with self-serve wine tasting machines isn’t in the vineyard-gateway cities of Salinas or Pismo Beach.

It’s in Oxnard.

When it opens to the public Friday at its new location in The Collection at RiverPark, the center operated by the Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau will offer visitors one-stop-shopping for tickets to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, souvenir dish towels printed with strawberries, and free pamphlets for attractions from San Francisco to San Diego.

Wine tasting and by-the-bottle sales of wines made by Ventura County Wine Trail members will start in mid December, or as soon as the site’s alcohol license takes effect.

“We’re being watched by all the other centers to see how it goes. I love it. I love being the leader,” said Susan Smith, who was named president and CEO of the convention and visitors bureau this summer.

The fledgling partnership between the state’s wine industry and the 19 California Welcome Centers was celebrated Wednesday during a by-invitation party attended by state-tourism officials and local politicians.

Representatives from seven wine trail-member wineries poured tastes the old-fashioned way: by hand. But their wines made from grapes grown in Lodi, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County eventually will be available through the wine-dispensing machines that on Wednesday sat unused in a corner of the room.

“We see this as a way to bring in new people, especially those who want to experience a small-production winery,” said Janis Barger of Plan B Wine Cellars, which opened just over a year ago behind a stone supply yard on Arundell Circle in Ventura.

“We hope they taste here and decide to visit the winery for the full experience,” Barger added.

Also pouring were Four Brix Winery and Panaro Brothers Winery of Ventura, Cantara Cellars of Camarillo, and Herzog Wine Cellars, Magnavino Cellars and Rancho Ventavo Cellars of Oxnard.

Joe Hurliman, winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars, gave attendees sneak-preview tastes of the 2012 Paso Robles syrah he plans to release in February under his own “playground label,” Eagles Landing.

Officially dubbed the California Welcome Center Oxnard tasting room presented by the Ventura County Wine Trail, the room actually is a portion of the 1,650-square-foot space designed by Mainstreet Architects + Planners Inc. of Ventura.

It is decorated with a stylized wineglass mural created from scraps of red cedar by a construction worker who helped build the site, Smith said.

The tasting room is equipped with two Italian-made Wine Emotion machines, each kept at temperatures suited to red or white wines. To activate the machines, visitors will insert access cards and select two or four wines to taste, at a cost of $8 or $16, respectively. Each taste is 1.5 ounces, or a standard tasting-room pour.

Featured wines also will be sold by the bottle for off-site consumption. Corkage fees will be waived for bottles bearing the center’s special sticker when presented at licensed restaurants at the mall, said Alyce Bosacki, business development manager for the convention and visitors bureau.

The dispensing machines are owned and operated by Herzog Wine Cellars. Joseph Herzog, vice president of wine operations for the Oxnard winery, was instrumental in launching the wine trail in 2008.

The trail’s first map was released that year, during a wine-tasting event that drew more than 400 people to the California Welcome Center’s original location in the National University Building less than a mile away.

The move does not include the center’s administrative offices, which will remain at 1000 Town Center Drive.

“The welcome center was supposed to be here from the beginning. But when it opened in 2007, construction at The Collection had come to a standstill because of the economy,” Smith said Wednesday as she greeted guests at the new space.

Located at 2786 Seaglass Way, the center is sandwiched between Gandolfo’s New York Delicatessen, which opened in March, and Famous Dave’s, a barbecue restaurant slated to open on or around Dec. 16.

Such activity is in stark contrast to what Karin Fish, vice president of external relations for Visit California, told party attendees she experienced during a trip to The Collection at RiverPark in 2009. “We looked at a mall that had been abandoned and a Welcome Center not where it was supposed to be,” she said.

Travel and tourism are helping lead California “back from a horrible recession,” Fish added. She noted that visitors to the state are expected to spend $119 billion next year, up from $106 billion in 2012.

The Welcome Centers do not receive money from the state, a fact that requires creativity when looking for ways to raise money to support their programs, said Fish.

“This is an amazing idea,” she said of the tasting room. “My dream is to see this model in every other California Welcome Center.”

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