Viva Vino!

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 in the movie Sideways isn't the only thing being emulated throughout this once overlooked part of California wine country. There have been more than a few groups following the journey of the movie's main character, Miles, through Santa Barbara. They make their way from The Hitching Post restaurant, where his love interest Maya works, to the Sanford Winery, to the Days Inn (Windmill) & Sports Bar.

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

In fact over the course of the next year, at least 15 incentive programs, for industries ranging from financial to pharmaceutical, 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.

Sideways, which grossed $109 million at the box office per, has had a noticeable effect on the industry as a whole. High-end barware and wine-of-the-month clubs have become popular options for pillow gifts and other corporate awards. At receptions, the standard 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 wine regions to Santa Barbara, have received increased bookings as well.

Flowing like Water

It seems that in the minds of incentive planners, wine is indeed fine. The reason for the sudden popularity of wine-themed incentive trips is directly connected to a current macro trend among consumers as a whole, as many are 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 rose $31 billion in 2004, an increase of four percent from the year prior, according to the wine and spirits research company Impact, in New York City. "It's about image. Younger drinkers, especially women, are more interested in cocktails and varietals like Pinot Grigio, Shiraz, the Australian wines," says Frank Walters, director of research for Impact.

Not surprisingly, this preference for everything from Chardonnay to Chablis has spilled over into the world of pillow gifts and corporate incentives. "We're finding that a lot of people are using wine as impactful awards and gifts," says Jim Bower, chief marketing officer for Lake Forest, CA-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 wine, it captivates them."

Elite has seen wine sales become 65 percent of its business, with last year's increase reaching 33 percent. Elite offers a wine-of-the-month club designed by a panel of experts who choose two reds and two whites each month. The sender can select which two they wish to send. The company also sells cigars, chocolates, cheeses, and other gourmet items, but wine "is by far our most popular line," says Bower.

Windsor Vineyards in Windsor, CA, 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 the vineyard.

One method of integrating wine into a program beyond just sending attendees 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 the recipient receives the wine opener, then a glass with a message that says something like, "Soon it will be filled with your success." Then food such as truffles that can be paired with varietals will arrive. Finally the award winner receives 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 customized tips. "I send a suggestion to let this particular wine open for two hours while you cook the lamb, along with the recipe for the lamb. It's an interactive gift as opposed to a passive gift."

Because of laws regarding the shipping of wine across certain state lines, using wine a reward or a thank-you is not always possible. However, these laws have become a little more relaxed of late.

Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis has seen an increased receptiveness not only to wine-of-the-month clubs but also to related 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. "The trend revolves around entertaining as a whole, as baby boomers and empty nesters are looking to party."

A taste of Class

Of course there are many other ways to expose incentive participants to the world of wine beyond sending them a bottle or providing them with the accoutrements. One popular option is making a wine tasting part of events. W. R. Tish, president of Wine For All, in Katonah, NY, 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 students working at law firms and investment banks.

"These students are going to be in situations where they're entering the business world. This gives these inexperienced, soon-to-be executives a chance to get an idea of what fine dining is like while with clients or potential clients," says Tish, who provides handouts about etiquette, how to size up a wine list, and other takeaways.

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

Thus, according to the analogy, Merlot is a good wine that is cheaper, fruitier, and more popular than Bordeaux, which is a great wine. Bordeaux's greatness revolves around its complexity, and longevity. "It takes more to appreciate a great wine," explains Tish.

Jeff Burns of Sandpoint, ID-based Vinamor has seen his business—coordinating wine tastings for corporate clients—sizzle. At events, his company sets up stations with various wines while 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," he says.

According to Burns, 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 out their wine knowledge," he says.

One unusual client, Babcock Genetics Inc. of Rochester, MN, uses Vinamor to help sell its product—pig sperm. Some 200 veterinarians attend an annual event to sample the genetically superior pork, produced from enhanced swine genetics—paired with the proper wines, of course.

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

Go to the Source

To get a real feel for wine culture, companies have taken to sending their award 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 Peer. "It's a popular option post-9/11 because it's in a nice, secure location that still has some exotic aspects."

Napa Valley offers hot-air balloon rides and trips in glider planes, but its most unique offering is back-of-the-house private events at well-known vineyards such as Beringer Blass Wine Estates and Robert Mondavi Winery.

Feldman, who has hosted trips for groups from industries ranging from automotive to computers to health and beauty aids, recommends such incentive programs for groups of less than 100 people at a time. "Otherwise it just becomes another tour," he says.

Wine tastings have also become 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 to 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. There they sampled Mexican wines while listening to indigenous music. "It's special because it's not something you can do on your own. You have to be invited by the hotel," says Arnold Light, president of the Light Group in New York City, which created the program.

Still, the wine tour du jour has to be a trip to Sideways country. The Santa Barbara CVB expected a boost from the film, but it had no idea what a catalyst the Oscar-winning movie would be. Proving this point is the fact the bureau initially printed 10,000 copies of the official Sideways map. It has since printed 12 times that many. "People used to say to me, 'What don't I know about Santa Barbara?' I'd respond: 'We have a wine country.' Now everyone knows all about it because of that film," says Mulgrew.

A recent, back-to-back, 350-attendee incentive included the Sideways tour, a dinner with one of the local winemakers, an event catered by Chef Frank Ostini from The Hitching Post, and a trip to Flag is Up Farms. The farm is owned by Monty Roberts, who is known as the "man who listens to horses." Roberts takes an unbroken horse and in 30 minutes gets the horse to accept a bridle and a saddle. It's an analogy that groups can use as a bridge to teach valuable lessons in nonverbal communication.

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

Kenneth Hein covers the wine industry as senior editor of the marketing newsweekly Brandweek.