Indie Film Turns Incentives Sideways

Andrew Murray Vineyards reports that there have been three attempts to drink from the spit bucket at its once sleepy Santa Barbara County winery. This reenactment of the climactic scene from the movie Sideways isn't the only thing being emulated throughout this formerly overlooked part of California wine country. There have been more than a few groups following in the steps of the movie's main character, Miles, on his journey through Santa Barbara. They make their way from The Hitching Post restaurant in Casmalia to the Sanford Winery and the Days Inn (Windmill) & Sports Bar in Buellton.

Only two short years ago, if you had mentioned these new hot spots as possible incentive destinations, the planner might have thought you had imbibed a little too much grape. However, thanks to the success of Sideways, the area is now officially on the incentive map. "I don't have to do the song and dance I was doing for so many years," says Donna Mulgrew, director of conference and incentive sales, Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau.

In fact, over the course of the next year, at least 15 incentive programs, from industries ranging from finance to pharmaceuticals, are booked for the area. "We've sold some large programs that are some years out as well as ones that are coming up. It's been a boon," says Mulgrew.

Motivated By the Movie
Sideways, which grossed $109 million at the box office, according to, has had a noticeable effect on the incentive industry as a whole. On the merchandise side of the business, high-end barware and wine-of-the-month clubs increasingly have become popular options. At receptions, the cocktail party is being replaced with impromptu wine tastings. On cruises, groups are signing up for full-blown tasting classes. And Napa and Sonoma—the bigger, better-known sister regions to Santa Barbara—have received increased bookings as well.

It seems that in the minds of incentive planners, wine is indeed fine. But this feeling extends far beyond the incentive industry. A current trend among consumers has many turning their noses up at beer in favor of wine and spirits.

Recent Gallup Poll results have shown that more Americans now prefer to drink wine (39 percent) rather than beer (36 percent). This is a stunning shift from 1992 when the research company began tracking consumers' alcohol preferences. At that time beer led wine 47 percent to 27 percent.

Wine sales as a whole hit $31 billion in 2004, up 4 percent from the year prior, according to the wine and spirits research company Impact, which is based in New York. "It's about image. Younger drinkers, especially women, are more interested in cocktails and varietal like Pinot Grigio, Shiraz, the Australian wines," says Frank Walters, director of research for Impact.

Wine and Incentives: A Perfect Pairing
Not surprisingly, this preference for everything from Chardonnay to Chablis has spilled over into the world of corporate incentives. "We're finding a lot of people are using wine as impactful awards and gifts," says Jim Bower, chief marketing officer for the Lake Forest, Calif.–based Elite Corporate Gifts and Rewards. "Wine is a fascinating world unto its own with the different grapes, blends and time periods. It's a world a lot of people don't understand, but once they start literally getting a taste for it…it captivates them."

Elite has seen wine sales grow to become 65 percent of its business, with sales having grown 33 percent last year. "It's by far our most popular line," says Bower. Elite offers a wine-of-the-month club derived from an expert panel that chooses two reds and two whites each month. The giver can select any two to send. The company also sells cigars, chocolates, cheeses and other items.

Windsor Vineyards, which is well known for shipping wine with customized labels, has seen its corporate business spike as well. "The trend is fabulous. Our corporate business has been going very, very well," says Melanie Diamond, director of sales for Windsor Vineyards, in Windsor, Calif.

One way to integrate wine into a program, beyond just sending a bottle or case, is to make it part of a continuity program, recommends James Feldman, president of James Feldman Associates, a Chicago–based performance improvement agency.

First, a recipient receives the wine opener, then a glass with a message that says something like "Soon it will be filled with your success." Often, food that is to be paired with varietal, like truffles, will arrive next. Finally comes the bottle, which can carry a custom label recognizing the recipient's achievement.

Feldman, who possesses 11,000 bottles of wine in his private collection, will also provide tips. "I send a suggestion to let this wine stand open for two hours while you cook the lamb, and here's the recipe for the lamb. It's an interactive gift as opposed to a passive gift."

Because of laws that regulate shipping wine across certain state lines, using wine as a reward or a thank you is not always possible. These laws, however, have become more relaxed of late, and a recent Supreme Court ruling promises to ease the rules even further in the next few years.

Beyond the Bottle
Carlson Marketing Group has not only seen an increased receptiveness to wine-of-the-month clubs but also with coordinating merchandise. There is an increase in interest in bars and high-end barware. "While the movie Sideways had a lot of influence, the trend actually transcends wine," says Dave Peer, senior director of merchandising and fulfillment for Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis. "The trend revolves around entertaining as a whole, as the baby boomers and empty-nesters are looking to party."

This also translates into a desire for improved outdoor furniture, which has evolved far beyond plastic patio lights. Incentive winners are now interested in outdoor lamps that look like something typically found in a living room, as well as copper fire pits and outdoor bars.

Of course there are many other ways to expose incentive participants to the world of wine beyond sending them a bottle or the accoutrements. One popular option available is making a wine tasting part of events. W.R. Tish, president of Wine For All in Katonah, N.Y., does about 40 corporate events a year, as companies increasingly are looking to integrate wine into conferences. He has found a specific niche for group wine tastings as incentives for summer associates and graduate school students in law firms and investment banks.

"These students are going to be in situations where they're entering the business world. This gives these green executives a chance to get a taste of what fine dining is like when they're with their peers versus clients or potential clients," says Tish, who provides handouts about etiquette and how to size up a wine list, among other takeaways.

One event planned for this month is a wine dinner based on the business-strategy book Good to Great. The event was designed for a mid-size accounting and consulting firm in New Jersey for top clients. Executives of the firm plan to work in a discussion of the book at each table. Tish's role was to apply the "good versus great" theme in selecting the wines.

The analogy goes that Merlot is a good wine that is cheaper, fruitier and more popular than Bordeaux, which is a great wine. The greatness of Bordeaux revolves around its complexity, more diverse flavor profile and its longevity. "It takes more to appreciate a great wine," says Tish.

Jeff Burns, of the Sandpoint, Idaho–based Vinamor, has seen his business of setting up wine tastings for corporate clients sizzle. His company sets up stations with various wines; meanwhile his staffers mingle informally and act as resident wine geeks. "We're at the events educating people about wine so they know more about it and look good to their clients."

Burns says this type of tasting is far more effective than holding a formal seminar where everyone is forced to pay attention. Plus, it serves as an icebreaker. "It's more than just a cocktail hour. People can talk about the wines and bust their wine knowledge out," he says.

One unusual client, Babcock Genetics Inc. of Rochester, Minn., uses the wines to help sell its product—pig semen. Some 200 veterinarians attend an annual event to sample the superior pork that results from engineering swine genetics; the meat is paired with the proper wines.

"You could imagine the dinner conversation," says Burns. "I know more about pig sex than I ever wanted to know in my life." He also has more typical clients like Microsoft and Turner Broadcasting. The company also does a brisk business shipping directly to recipients. Burns says the most popular brands are the 2001 Opus One (retailing for $139.50 per bottle) and the 1996 Dom Perignon ($129.50).

Following the Grapevine
To get a real feel for wine culture, however, companies have taken a shine to sending their winners to the places where the grapes are grown. Whether it's an extensive trip through Napa or a wine tasting tour as a component of visiting the San Francisco Bay area, "these activities are absolutely in concert with what's going on," says Carlson's Peer. "It's a popular option post-9/11, because it's a nice secure location that has some exotic aspects, yet it's safe."

Napa Valley offers hot-air balloon rides and trips in glider planes, but its most sought-after offering is private events at well-known vineyards like Beringer Blass Wine Estates and Robert Mondavi Winery.

Feldman, who has hosted trips for groups from industries ranging from automotive to computers, recommends groups of fewer than 100 people at a time. "Otherwise it just becomes another tour," he says.

Wine tastings are now a popular addition to incentive cruises. While on the high seas, groups can buff up their knowledge of Burgundy and Sauvignon Blanc. "That kind of activity is becoming more popular. For husbands and wives, it's a fun thing for them to do together," says Peer.

And wine-themed events are being added to destinations that aren't typically known for their sprawling vineyards. A major company in the recruitment field held a President's Club trip in Los Cabos, Mexico. The farewell event was held in the wine cellar of the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Resort & Spa, where the 20-person group was led down a spiral staircase into a stone-walled cave. They sampled Mexican wines while listening to indigenous music. "It's special because it's not something you can do on your own," says Arnold Light, president of the Light Group in New York, which created the program.

Still, the wine tour du jour has to be a trip to "Sideways country." While the Santa Barbara CVB expected a boost from the film, it had no idea what a catalyst the Oscar-winning movie would be. It originally printed up only 10,000 copies of the official Sideways map, but has since printed 12 times that. "People would say to me, 'What don't I know about Santa Barbara?' I'd say we have a wine country. Now everyone knows all about it because of that little film," says Mulgrew.

A recent incentive included a Sideways tour, dinner with one of the local winemakers, an event catered by Chef Frank Ostini from The Hitching Post and a trip to the Flag is Up Farms. Farm owner Monty Roberts is known as the "man who listens to horses." For visitors he will demonstrate non- verbal communication by teaching a previously unbroken horse to calmly accept a saddle and bridle, in the space of 30 minutes.

Yes indeed, Santa Barbara is coming into its own, and the easiest thing about booking a trip to this hot new incentive destination may be the room gift. Just get a nice bottle of Merlot and everyone will be happy. Right, Miles?