There’s only one reason to attend a wine passport weekend: to get tipsy in a pastoral setting as cheaply as possible.
Despite being marketed as the ideal combination of education and a buzz, with one ticket promising “free” tasting at dozens of wineries, neither learning nor drinking well are guaranteed.
The damning secret behind shiny brochures for “Taste Sonoma,” “Behind the Cellar Door,” or “Harvest Weekend” festivals is that they are neither organized nor championed by the wineries behind them. Instead, these passport weekends are coordinated by regional vintners’ associations, who reap all of the profits — and motivation to provide a fantastic experience — from hordes of thirsty tourists.
The purpose of wine travel is usually two-fold: to discover and explore new wine regions, and to find and purchase wines that aren’t available on grocery store shelves or local bottle shops. Most times, tasting rooms provide the perfect mix of vinous delight and educational tidbits — why Riesling from Mendocino tastes differently than German Rieslings, or why Napa is prime for grape growing, for instance. Unfortunately, wine passport weekends rarely provide either benefit.
The vintners’ associations responsible for most large-scale tasting events are best known for producing “Silverado Wine Trail” maps and other marketing propaganda. Often, they also maintain informational websites and act as in-house public relations departments for wine growing areas. Wineries pay dues and participate in annual or semi-annual tasting events in exchange for membership and a star on the local wine trail map.
For small, hard-to-find wineries these benefits are invaluable because much of their business comes from local tourist offices and websites. Sadly, because they are required to donate the wine poured and food served during weekend wine fests, these small wineries are not winners.
Passport weekends make money from ticket sales — usually $45-$70 in exchange for a wristband or mini “passport” entitling attendees to wine and festivities across a region. Attendees pay in advance for tastes along the wine road, and are seduced with promises of appetizers and winemaker-led seminars throughout the weekend. Because event-goers have already paid for their experience, they tend not to purchase bottles at the wineries they visit during the event — the norm and proper etiquette in wine country. As a result, wineries see little to no profit from the events, because ticket sales solely benefit the vintners’ association. In addition, small tasting rooms are often overrun by visitors, forcing wineries to hire extra staff and incur even more costs.
The lack of dollar signs and profusion of drunkenness that these events inspire (seriously, try hitting 20 wineries in a day and see how you feel), disenfranchises the wineries involved. Unfortunately, participation is a requirement in exchange for a vintners’ association membership — a loss many small wineries simply can’t afford.
The result is that participants pour their cheapest, and most unpopular bottles during these Bacchanalian weekends simply to reduce inventory and lose the least revenue. Tasting room attendants — often a tourist’s best source for discovering the best a region has to offer — aren’t able to talk in detail about the wines they’re pouring, and instead simply empty bottles into souvenir glasses for hours on end.
Likewise, hunting for the cheapest catering (Costco and a Crockpot) to provide the mandated “complimentary” hors d’oeuvres for guests is a sport among staff at some tasting events.
Unfortunately, these events are met with groans from the industry rather than cheers, and that means a huge loss for event-goers. In short, passport weekends present tourists and budding oenophiles with a race to the bottom in terms of wine quality and service.
Instead of joining in the wine guzzling free-for-all that passport weekends promise, why not visit wineries on a regular weekend or even on a weekday? Quiet times offer the most benefit for tasting wines at their source since the charm, and educational value, of wine tasting is at its peak when staffers have the time and ability to explain the wines and the region. More often than not, a simple tasting conversation can evolve into a vineyard tour, or barrel sampling expedition. If you want the party vibe, attend a winery-led harvest or release party. Winemakers are often happily lurking behind tasting room bars on a Wednesday afternoon, while wine weekends leave them begrudgingly pouring a second or third taste of bottom-shelf Zinfandel.
So do your palate and small boutique wineries a favor: Avoid the passport weekend festivals and visit any of the other 50 weeks this year. The benefits will be infinite, and there won’t be any lines.
By: Laura Burgess
Laura Burgess is a wine enthusiast, and recent West Coast transplant who now lives nestled in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, surrounded by baby grapevines. Find her at Laura Uncorked.