In the course of> his travels, Steve Tingas has checked off item after item on a bucket list of worthy experiences. He's marveled at breathtaking mountainside views. He's taken in prominent art exhibitions. He's even visited a Persian-style palace an over-the-top "sight to behold," says the Lowell, Mass., marketing consultant.
But the most curious part of Tingas's odyssey? He's done it all in one region, the verdant heart of California wine country: Napa Valley and Sonoma County. As a serious sipper, Tingas goes mainly to partake of the grape. But lately, he's been finding something else. That bucolic chateau in Sonoma where Tingas used to sit in the courtyard and enjoy an alfresco lunch with a nice cabernet? It's been purchased by movie mogul turned-winemaker Francis Ford Coppola and made over into what's been dubbed a "wine wonderland," with swimming pools, bocce courts and an amphitheater.
This change is part of one of the most unlikely transformations in today's travel industry. With the recession still chipping away at vintners' profits (U.S. sales of California wines have dipped more than 5 percent since the $18.9 billion high they hit in 2007), winemakers have opted to revamp a host of vineyards, transforming them from temples of mannerly swishing and sipping into grape-stomping theme parks for grown-ups. Now the more than 7 million annual visitors who flock to the region can do anything from gawk at car-racing memorabilia (Mario Andretti has his own winery) to get down at a rock concert. And that's on top of the core of the business, wine tastings, which have also gotten increasingly pricey and elaborate. Altogether, the changes have meant new income from splurges like gourmet lunches and cases of wine sold on-site (a move that cuts out the middleman and easily doubles winemakers' profit).
But they also have caused a stir among wine purists, many of whom say that turning wineries into show-stopping destinations leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Some travelers report a growing pressure from wineries to buy, buy, buy, and say the best perks go only to the big spenders. Even certain industry insiders are concerned. Wine blogger Bob Hunnicutt, for one, says some vineyards have crossed the line into tourist traps, while other critics say the move risks damaging the casual California mystique that attracts visitors in the first place.
The early stages> of this transformation began years ago, when the region first started shrugging off its old mom-and-pop feel (back in the '60s local icon Robert Mondavi himself used to stand on the side of the road, trying to attract visitors to his winery). In the '90s many vineyards began charging for formerly gratis tastings, and it wasn't long before what had been considered just an affordable alternative to the real deal namely European wines blossomed into a connoisseur favorite. (The tipping point: when California wines beat out their French rivals in the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting.) For winemakers, this newfound clout has meant an opportunity to turn vineyards into more than just a place to promote their wines.
It's safe to say that even someone who doesn't know his ros from his Riesling could find something to do at Francis Ford Coppola's new winery (the filmmaker's second) in Sonoma's Geyserville. Visitors can tour the property's Movie Gallery, an exhibit of memorabilia from Coppola's storied career highlights include Don Corleone's desk from The Godfather before digging into a $24 plate of "Mrs. Scorsese's lemon chicken" at the on-site restaurant. There's also plenty to keep kids entertained, including those bocce courts and swimming pools (cabines, or changing rooms, rent for $25 a day). General Manager Corey Beck says Coppola wanted the property to be more than just another winery: "He wanted to create a destination."
And for wine aficionados looking for something more than a basic tasting, many vineyards are offering a variety of options. Several now have a second tasting area, usually reserved for wine club members (in extreme cases, membership fees can hit $4,000) or visitors willing to fork out extra for the VIP experience. Others have started hosting elaborate wine-themed meals or events to promote their special-release bottles available for purchase only at the winery. At the Robert Mondavi Winery, a select few are invited to join the To Kalon Circle (To Kalon is the vineyard that produces some of the winery's most expensive cabernets). Membership, which includes access to private tastings and other events, is free, though invitations usually go only to serious collectors, who might buy hundreds of cases a year.
Mark Dickerson, a communications specialist based in Sioux Falls, S.D., has made three trips to Napa and Sonoma in recent years and says the vineyards' push for him to spring for a pricey bottle or join a wine club has become more pronounced each time. As soon as a tasting-room staffer sees that someone is serious about wine, he says, they invite him back to a private room. "They make you feel like a celebrity," says Dickerson. Then, knowing the visitor is feeling special and perhaps a little indebted for the extra attention, they make their pitch. "They are truly salesmen," he concludes.
It's no surprise that travelers are feeling the pressure. Most wineries use a commission system, says Craig Root, a tasting-room consultant who's worked with several California wineries, and staffers typically earn $10 to $20 for each visitor they get to join a wine club. Many of the nonalcoholic options can also put a dent in visitors' wallets; the Robert Mondavi winery, for instance, recently hosted a $500-a-ticket dinner concert with Dave Matthews, while the Coppola gift shop sells everything from copies of the director's films to $375 books signed by George Lucas. Then there's Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa, a winery resembling a 13th century Tuscan castle, which charges visitors $17 to walk in the door. (At least Darioush, the Persian-inspired Napa winery Steve Tingas visited, doesn't charge admission.)
The vineyards' attempt to go from day trip to destination has also caused some dissent within the industry itself. A few insiders say the properties' focus on nonliquid indulgences could endanger their winemaking reputations and damage long-term sales. "They have to remind themselves they are a retail operation and not a theme park," says Barbara Insel, president of Stonebridge Research Group, a wine-industry consulting firm. But California wineries' efforts have also appeared to inspire vineyards in other up-and-coming regions. In Bryan, Texas, for instance, the Messina Hof winery now hosts themed murder-mystery dinners (a recent Ancient Rome inspired event saw toga-clad guests tracking clues as they sipped the vintner's wines).
And the California trend seems to please some travelers, who are literally wearing their fondness for the state's wineries on their sleeve. Just ask Rand Hoch, a West Palm Beach, Fla., attorney, who can't resist picking up a souvenir at every winery he visits. No, not a bottle (though he does often have a case shipped to his house). Instead, Hoch goes home with a polo shirt sporting the winery's name. "I've got close to 60," he says.
Photograph: Lianne Milton.