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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

A toast to vintage events

The meeting site: Leesburg, Va., about an hour west of Washington. The options for an after-hours gathering: A nice restaurant with a good wine list or a reception and dinner at 475-acre Tarara Winery on the bluffs of the Potomac River 11 miles north of town.

At a time when even a short excursion seems like a treat, a trip to one of Virginia’s wineries might be the option that lifts a staff’s spirits, literally and figuratively.

A tasting and tour, a lesson on wine pairings or a wine dinner in a barrel room is a more expansive experience than a glass of wine with dinner.

When meetings adjourn to a winery, they have the experience of seeing the process “from grapes to glass,” said Juliann Adams, director of sales and events at Wine Country Inn in Palisade, Colo.

Wine events “encapsulate all of the senses, and that is what makes a wine excursion wonderful,” said Deidre Biggs Stevens, who operates a wine tour company in Virginia.

Wineries growing like vines

Having an event at a winery is becoming easier as well. At the end of 2008, there were more than 6,000 wineries in the United States, a large leap since 1999 when there were just over 2,000.

And, although almost half of the nation’s wineries are in California, there are now wineries in every state, including Alaska, with three, and Hawaii, with two. Washington, Oregon, New York and Texas, fill out the top five; Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan all have more than 100 wineries.

Not every winery is suitable for

Chefs cook with wine and talk about wine pairings in the demonstration theater at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Courtesy NYWCC

events, however. Some have small tasting rooms; others are open to the public by appointment only. But a significant number of wineries have found value in giving tours, offering tastings and serving as sites for meetings receptions and dinners. Some have gone so far as to add lodging and dedicated meeting facilities.

Wineries tend to cluster in geographical areas where growing conditions suit grapes. From those clusters grow wine regions and wine trails, critical masses of growers and grapes that can make it easier for meeting planners to plan events that incorporate wine.

Here is a look at three regions and the options they offer small meetings.

Loudoun County, Va.

Near the nation’s capitol, Loudoun County, Va., with Leesburg at its heart, markets itself as DC’s Wine Country. It is home to four clusters of wineries, 22 in all.

Most are small, and only a handful have facilities for events or meetings, which makes Deidre Biggs Stevens a handy resource.

Stevens is a local who became enamoured with the area’s fledgling wine industry in the early 1990s. She worked part time for three years at Tarara Winery, and a couple of years ago, she started her own company, Virginia Wine Adventures, to help meeting planners and others arrange events at wineries.

It is common to find transportation firms that transport tourists along wine trails in limousines or vans, but Stevens’ company goes beyond shuttling passengers from tasting room to tasting room.
In late June, she sent a proposal to a client detailing an event for 50 that would offer wine education by Laurie Forester, who bills herself as a wine coach.

For a corporation that wanted to reward employees with something more than a staid hotel banquet, Stevens designed an adventure in and around Leesburg. The day included an extensive tour and tasting at a winery, lunch and a chef demonstration at a historic restaurant in Middleburg, and shopping. There was wine trivia as the group traveled by motorcoach, and wine chillers, wine openers and wine glasses were awarded as prizes.

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Finger Lakes, N.Y.

Between Rochester and Syracuse, with Ithaca at its southern tip, New York’s best-known wine region is home to more than 100 wineries. Five wine trails link wineries that border the Finger Lakes’ five lakes.

In Ontario County, home to the resort town of Canandaigua, it is not uncommon for Sue Schmidt, the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection meeting specialist, to help meeting planners organize outings to the seven stops on the Canandaigua Wine Trail. Because most of the wineries are small, she typically breaks large groups into smaller ones and staggers the stops. She also limits the number of stops so “folks can enjoy the stops along the way and take in the scenery.”

When groups are pressed for time or too large to comfortably tour wineries, Schmidt can arrange for winery representative to come to a group’s hotel to have a tasting and talk.

Canandaigua also offers two wine-related attractions with multiple venues and entertainment options for meeting groups.

A grand 40-room mansion and nine formal gardens are the centerpiece of Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. The park has its own tasting room, where more than 30 wines made in the area can be tasted as light filters through a large Tiffany window.

The opportunities at Sonnenberg don’t stop at the tasting room. The 50-acre estate’s carriage house is now for meetings and events; it can comfortably handle about 40 people. The lawn can be tented, and a favored location is near the mansion, where the view of the grounds and its gardens and ponds reminds guests of “a nice little park,” said Sonnenberg’s Alyssa Deal.

Small groups, including executives from Constellation Brands, a beverage company, have used the mansion’s dining room for formal dinners. It seats about 20 people.

Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in New York has its own tasting room as well as event venues that include a carriage house, lawns and gardens, and a dining room.
Courtesy Finger Lakes Visitors Connection

Another wine-oriented option in Canandaigua is the New York Wine and Culinary Center, opened three years ago just above a marina on north shore of Canandaigua Lake.

The center is New York through and through, built with New York lumber and stone, and its mission is to educate the region’s 23 million visitors about the virtues of New York’s wines, vegetables and other agricultural products.

What makes the wine and culinary center a must-stop for groups is its programming, designed to entertain as well as teach.

“We really strive to marry an element of education with a fun experience,” said Alexa Gifford, executive director. “You can start the day here, break up the day here or end the day here.”

For example, a group can adjourn to the center’s demonstration theater and watch a chef cook with New York wines or describe wine and food pairings. The demonstrations include tastes of the dishes being prepared.

Groups with little time to spare can have a wine tasting and a tour of the center, which will provide them with a better understanding of New York’s wine industry before they visit wineries along some of the wine trails.

“The center is great place to start,” said Gifford. “We give them an overview of the five producing wine regions and New York state agricultural products. They can taste the wines from other regions and then go out with more knowledge of the wine trail they are traveling on.”

The center’s tent, set up on the grounds from mid-May to mid-October, is surrounded by 70 fruit trees, grape vines, and herb and vegetable gardens. “Our gardens offer groups the ability to be outdoors and enjoy New York products firsthand,” said Gifford.

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Grand Junction, Colo.

In the western region of Colorado, grapes and other fruit thrive in the hot, dry climate cooled by breezes that blow through canyons. More than 20 wineries are scattered through the Grand Valley.

Several have oriented themselves toward group events, including Two Rivers Winery, with its 10-room inn and conference center, and Veraison Winery, a new winery constructed from a historic barn; its tasting room is in a 100-year-old Victorian mansion. An open-air pavilion for 250 has views of the mountains, Grand Mesa and vineyards.

The area’s Victorian-era architecture is celebrated in the area’s newest meeting hotel, the 80-room Wine Country Inn.

Opened last August, the inn is 10 miles from Grand Junction in Palisade, in a vineyard. The vines that grow all around the inn, allow meeting attendees to wander among them and even visit with workers as they care for the vines. The hotel is, its owners say, the only wine-theme hotel in the state.

Wine Country Inn opened a year ago in the middle of vineyards and next to a winery in Colorado’s Grand Valley wine region.
Courtesy Wine Country Inn

“Our location is definitely part of the experience,” said Juliann Adams, the hotel’s director of sales and events. “The vines are literally all around us so when you are staying here, you are reminded of how that wine came to be.”

Next door and within an easy walk, Grande River Winery works closely with Adams to set up tours and tastings for the corporations and associations that meet in the hotel’s ballroom and small conference rooms.

Although the area’s wineries are within an easy drive, most of Adams’ meeting groups prefer to walk next door to Grande River Winery and have a reception, a tour of the winemaking facilities and a taste from some of the barrels.

Those who do venture out to other wineries are typically charmed by the small, family-run operations, said Adams. “The winemaker is usually right there, talking with the visitors during the tasting. These are smaller operations that are very much hands on.”

The inn continues to add to its wine-related offerings. This month, it begins a series of sommelier-led wine classes, a rendition of which can be offered for meeting groups.

And even for those with little time or budget for special wine events, the inn’s location in the vines and its little extras, like a daily afternoon wine tasting, make it easy and inexpensive to add wine to a work day.

As Adams says, at the Wine Country Inn, “It is wine all over, all day long.”

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