The nature of wine tastings in Napa Valley has changed over the years — pours have gotten larger, reservations have become customary and fees seem to always be rising — and so have their corresponding wine passport programs. The days of flimsy discount books filled with tasting coupons are over, with local programs opting for more elevated offerings for visitors to take advantage of.
The basic notion remains — for year-round programs, folks can choose the duration of their pass and pay for that membership level of winery access, whereas seasonal programs serve to swell the local economy during slow periods. Some passports are physical while others live digitally on an app, but regardless of their form, these passports give wine lovers a place to track their tastings and try new wineries with added perks.
In Calistoga and St. Helena, local tourism agencies have partnered with area wineries to sell wintertime tasting passes, offering these local businesses a boost during the offseason.
Visit Calistoga’s “Winter in the Wineries” passport runs from early December through Feb. 6, and this year highlights 14 wineries in Calistoga, Lake County, Pope Valley, and St. Helena.
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Similarly, the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce puts together its “Little Book of Big Experiences” each year, which recently launched in November and is valid through April 2022.
“What makes our passport program different and unique is that it’s not a two-for-one tasting passport,” said Amy Carabba-Salazar, president and CEO of the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce. “These are elevated experiences, and the reason we do the passport isn’t to make money. The whole plan was that the chamber was going to help the wineries and create this upscale passport during the offseason.”
First piloted five years ago, the Little Book features 12 experiences from different participating wineries, giving passholders access to wine club privileges at Charles Krug, self-guided tours of Hall, seasonal small bite pairings at Clif Family, and more. Oriented toward out-of-town visitors, most of this year’s passholders so far are coming from Southern California and the greater Bay Area, as well as other leading wine markets like Texas and Florida.
“It brings people in the door, and then it’s up to the team to upsell those visitors and get wine club members,” said Carabba-Salazar. “We were told by a good majority of our participants, I would say 85%, that the passport has really helped them, and that’s why we continue to do it … It’s not because it’s a revenue maker for the chamber; it’s because it helps wineries.”
The Chamber also holds training for the featured Little Book wineries entirely focused on how to upsell passport holders once they arrive on site, and it even partners with local hotels to offer incentives for their guests. Also, by allowing the partner establishments to pick what experience they want to feature in the book rather than mandating a discount, Carabba-Salazar says they are able to uplift these local businesses without much intervention on the Chamber’s part.
As a result, all involved parties can benefit. So much so that when COVID hit in 2020, the participating Little Book wineries actually asked to extend the program beyond its usual timeframe.
“So in 2020, we extended the book from November to June at the request of the wineries,” said Carabba-Salazar. “I think it really helped during COVID because all these wineries have limited capacity, and there were so many challenges that the wineries were facing.”
“Now we’re seeing more and more people travel, so this year the book is from November to April.”
On sale for $85, the St. Helena Little Book of Big Experiences can be viewed and purchased at www.sthelena.com/store.
For Jamie Cegelski-Gaebe of Priority Wine Pass, which now has partnered with hundreds of wineries in California, Washington, and Oregon, her jump into the world of wine passports was also fueled by a desire to uplift local wineries, although their operation is much larger than that of St. Helena. Priority Wine Pass has a concierge service built into their program, which allows visitors to plan their trip to wine country ahead of time, whether it is a small group vacation or a massive corporate function.
“People find that there are so many wineries to visit in Napa Valley alone, and when people are coming to Napa just once in their lifetime, or even if they like to come every now and then, they are overwhelmed by all the choices,” said Cegelski-Gaebe. “So that’s where we took the mindset that we’re not just going to be a discount card; we’re actually going to help by matching people with the wineries that fit their budget, their personality, and what they’re looking for, as well as their wine preferences.”
“We also help find drivers for people, we recommend different restaurants and hotels … We have even partnered with a couple like hot air balloon companies,” Cegelski-Gaebe said. “People aren’t just given a pass or a passport to taste … We help guide them, we give them etiquette and structure, but people can also do it on their own.”
In doing this, Priority Wine Pass has optimized its process of matching folks with new wineries to try and prides itself on its diverse range of clients.
“We have people that are 21 and drinking wine for the first time, and then we have people that are flying in on their private plane, and we have everybody in between, and the majority is in between,” said Cegelski-Gaebe. “We want different wineries for all these different types of people.”
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