Heading to wine country? Here's everything you need to know before you go

ByLiz Kreutz and Juan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Sunday, June 6, 2021
Need a wine country getaway? Better make a reservation
Most wineries implemented a reservation system during the pandemic and many will keep the systems in place this summer.

NAPA, Calif. (KGO) -- If you head out to Northern California's wine country, it certainly looks like vaccinations are giving tourists the liberty to travel again.

"We are both vaccinated and that was a factor in feeling more comfortable traveling and definitely flying," said Shannon Goss, a tourist from Massachusetts who was doing a private tasting with her husband at Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa.

The couple looked at different wineries and hotels to ensure they followed proper safety protocols like outdoor tastings and spreading tables out.

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"They keep saying everybody has a pent-up desire to get out and explore, and so we're definitely seeing that starting in a big way," said CEO of Sonoma County Tourism Claudia Vecchio.

Sonoma County has seen a 400% jump in tourism-related revenue from last year and a 100% increase in occupancy at hotels and lodgings in the county. While the numbers are encouraging, they are still 25 to 30% lower than in 2019, before the pandemic caused travel to grind to a halt.

Vecchio said the county is focusing its marketing efforts in luring back local tourists first, those close enough for a day trip or a weekend getaway.

Its "Life Opens Up" campaign actually originated in 2018 but fits perfectly with tourists looking to venture out after a year of sheltering at home.

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The Napa Valley was a big destination for Memorial Day weekend with some wineries reporting record-breaking sales.

"Little did we know how perfect that brand was going to be," said Vecchio, who anticipates international tourism won't recover to pre-pandemic levels until next year.

Most wineries implemented a reservation system during the pandemic and many will keep the systems in place this summer.

"Don't expect to come into Sonoma County without reservations and be a little more casual with your trip. Those days are gone. Be sure to call ahead. Be sure you make reservations and prepare for a trip here," said Vecchio.

At many wineries, weddings are starting to drive business.

"We have about 10 weddings planned this year. We hope to get that up to 25," said Paradise Ridge Winery co-owner Rene Byck.

RELATED: Bay Area wineries will look 'very different' after pandemic, expert says

The family-owned winery hopes the June 15 date given by Governor Gavin Newsom to fully open up the state will allow it to start accommodating guests near its capacity of 250 people.

"I think most people will feel comfortable more outside than inside," said Byck. "We have a lot of outdoor space. I think that will be a benefit."

Byck also wants to show off the winery's collection of Burning Man monuments and the newly built welcome center. The previous one burned down in 2017 during the Tubbs Fire. With a deck that overlooks Santa Rosa, the new one was open just a few months before the pandemic forced it to shut down.

It's these beautiful outdoor spaces that tourism advocates expect will drive tourism business.

"We're going to maximize those outdoor experiences," said CEO of Visit Napa Valley Linsey Gallagher.

VIDEO: How the Bay Area is getting ready for tourist season

"We are promoting those pieces of what the Napa Valley can offer for a business meeting focusing on outdoor space and the creativity that might flow if you have a meeting or an off-site session at a winery," added Gallagher.

She touts outdoors and wellness activities like bike riding and massages as activities that are more attractive to tourists after months mostly indoors.

Napa is also seeing the return of in-person events like the Festival Napa Valley, Bottlerock and the Napa Valley Film Festival in the late summer and fall.

Wine country is a big driver of business at Tower Tours, which provides sightseeing trips to Muir Woods and wine country from its offices at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

It started offering excursions again in March after closing down most of last year.

"We are taking things day by day, week by week, trying to rebuild the business and just kind of get back to a level where we can sustain ourselves for the future," said general manager Janet Roxas, who said that they are getting more calls for trips as people get vaccinated.

Guests still have to wear face coverings on the bus, which are running at 50% capacity so people have ample space to socially distance themselves. Some buses have retractable roofs to allow more air circulation.

"We just want the best for our guests to feel more safe and comfortable on their tour," said Roxas.

The slow approach to reopening is also a draw for some tourists.

Jane Dutle and her husband booked a Tower Tours wine tasting trip. The Kentucky couple said they looked at which states were continuing with mask mandates before deciding where to go on vacation.

"We didn't want to go to Florida or South Carolina or places like that. So we thought California still has a mask mandate in place," explained Dutle while she sipped some wine at Madonna Estate Winery, the first stop on the wine tour.

Madonna Estate Winery depends heavily on tourism from San Francisco.

"Group tours are a very important part of our business. It's 50% or higher of our total revenue," said Tasting Room Manager Bob Blackstone.

He said the winery has survived with online sales. Right now, it is seeing about 25% of its typical business from tour groups.

Blackstone hopes business returns to normal quickly as the important summer months get closer.

"It's very important that we see travel open up again," said Blackstone.

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