NEWS / FEATURES
Stefan Czarnecki, Black Tie Tours. ##Photo Provided

Guiding Right

Oregon’s vineyard tour companies a driving force

By Neil Zawicki

John Swenson, Insiders Wine Tour ##Photo by Rockne Roll

Vineyards feel romantic. More than a few winegrowers might scoff at that sentiment because for them it conjures thoughts of long hours, endless equipment maintenance, worry over mildew or other threats to the harvest and the harvest itself, which, by any account, is one of the most labor-intensive phases of any agricultural operation. Then there’s the marketing and distribution, not to mention the bottling.

People visiting and purchasing wine are also essential to the success of a brand. For the tourists who venture into the valleys for a taste, here is where the romance thrives. Rows of sun-drenched vines following the contour of a hill with a charming tasting room and barrel room nestled among the grapes, as well as an affable winemaker spinning yarns, explaining the process in technical yet interesting terms, goes a very long way toward moving a case.

Enter the bustling business of tour companies.

The concept for guiding consumers on field trips to wine country began in the late 1950s but grew in earnest as an industry in the ’70s. According to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute, The Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley — offering dramatic architecture, event and classroom spaces, professional kitchens, art galleries and, of course, tasting bars — began welcoming bus tours in the late 1960s. Historians mention the Mondavi model as the impetus for the wine tour industry.

Debra Kabarsky, A Vineyard Wine Tour ##Photo Provided

By the 1990s, chauffeured limousines began ferrying groups to California estates. This represented a departure from European counterparts, which did not encourage the public to taste wine, join a wine club or experience what consumers understood as the wine country lifestyle.

The Willamette Valley’s newfound status, bestowed by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as “Wine Region of The Year,” both confirms and enhances its vineyard tourism industry.

Examining the stats and financial data concerning visitors and tourism to the state, it becomes clear the Willamette Valley has evolved into a world-respected wine country hot spot. Annually, 27 million people tour wine regions in the U.S., comprising 17 percent of American leisure travel. According to a 2017 report from Portland-Based economic and market research firm Dean Runyan Associates, over the past 16 years, annual economic travel impacts in the Valley have risen from $1,020,000 in 2000 to 1,815,000 in 2016.

These numbers skirt the realm of the wonky, but they paint a picture, and a useful one, for anyone taking a commercial interest in wine, vineyards and tourism locally. The numbers represent couples, groups, families and companies deciding a jaunt through a world-class wine region constitutes a fine way to spend a vacation.

Knowing this trend and understanding the numbers help explain why so many businesses find success carting tourists to not only the large but also boutique wineries in the Willamette Valley. There’s not necessarily a college course or a degree program the trains someone for a career as a wine tour operator, and for this reason, the concept attracts a range of entrepreneurs.

Whether guides cater to groups, honeymoon couples or squads of young women — in floral print sundresses armed with Instagram accounts — these companies are flourishing in the Willamette Valley. For a sense of what visitors want and what tours offer, OWP spoke with three operators, each with a slightly different approach to the business and professional background.

John Swenson, owner of Insiders Wine Tour in McMinnville, has been leading clients on private tours for 13 years. Having lived in wine country since the ’80s, he said he’s just always had a good sense for the vineyards. It’s noteworthy that he spent his former professional life teaching business in high school and Portland State University. He later became the vice president of human resources for a major Portland credit union before “semi-retiring” in 2004, when he launched his tour company. 

Debra Kabarsky of A Vineyard Wine Tour, also in McMinnville, worked as a business executive with major homebuilders in California for years, but along the way, she earned an advanced certificate from the Wine Spirit and Education Trust. She finally started her tour business in 2016. Kabarsky points to her experience waiting tables in fine restaurants as the source for her love of wine.

Stefan Czarnecki runs Black Tie Tours from nearby Newberg. The former middle school teacher says restaurants and hospitality are just in his blood. In fact, when he was eight years old, he’d play bar-back for his grandma, helping open wine bottles at the family restaurant in Pennsylvania.

Tour guides cater to essentially three types of wine tourists: (1) romantic couples who really want to spend the day in the idyllic setting of vines, rolling hills and bright patios slowly sipping wines and nibbling … cheese; (2) hard-core field trippers who yearn to learn about the winemaking process, walking the vineyards, talking with the winemakers and taking notes all the while tasting ... and spitting; and finally (3) the gregarious groups who simply want to drink wine while riding in a bus or a van — the setting for them is ancillary and the venue need only involve more drink. These groups are fun, sometimes rowdy, and not the favorite of all tour guides, not to mention the wineries, especially the smaller ones.

“When people are on vacation, they can become a different person,”  Czarnecki said, suggesting hosting some large party groups can be a bit of a challenge. “The large groups really wind each other up.”

Still, a large portion of Czarnecki’s work involves more intimate groups wanting what he calls the “personal touch,” such as arranging a catered lunch or a wine dinner with a local chef. His family connection to the restaurant business, he says, helps his efforts.

“I was very fortunate to have a family name that gives me a certain credibility,” he said.

His dad, Jack Czarnecki, is the founder of The Joel Palmer House in Dayton — Stefan’s older brother, Chris, is now the restaurant’s executive chef. Jack is also an expert mushroom and truffle hunter. Together, Stefan and his father started a truffle oil company; Stefan also wanted to create a truffle tour business, but the reality is people with truffle caches are not too keen on revealing them. So, he embraced wine instead and feels fortunate in terms of timing.

“As Oregon wines continue to grow in popularity, so does the demand for tours,” he said.

GUIDED BY THE FLIGHT

A GREAT OREGON WINE TOUR
www.agreatoregonwinetour.com

A NOSE FOR WINE TOURS
www.anoseforwine.com

ACCESS OREGON WINE TOURS
www.accessoregonwine.com

ASPEN LIMO TOURS
www.aspenlimotours.com

A VINEYARD WINE TOUR
www.avineyardwinetour.com

BACCHUS WINERY TOURS
www.bacchuswinerytours.com

BACKCOUNTRY WINE TOURS
www.backcountrywine.tours

BEAUTIFUL WILLAMETTE TOURS
www.willamettetours.com

BLACK TIE TOURS
www.blacktietours.com

CELLAR DOOR WINE TOURS
www.cellardoorwinetours.com

CORK & BARREL WINE TOURS
www.corkandbarreltours.com

EMBRACE OREGON
www.embraceoregon.com

EQUESTRIAN WINE TOURS
www.equestrianwinetours.com

GRAPE ESCAPE
www.grapeescapetours.com

INSIDERS WINE TOUR
www.insiderswinetour.com

MAIN STREET DRIVERS
www.mainstreetdrivers.com

MARTIN’S GORGE TOURS
www.martinsgorgetours.com

MOUNT-N-BARREL BIKE TOURS
www.mountnbarrel.com

MY CHAUFFEUR WINE TOURS
www.winetouroregon.com

OREGON SELECT WINE TOURS
www.oregonselectwinetours.com

OREGON WINE GUIDES
www.oregonwineguides.com

PINOT CAR WINE TOURS
www.pinotcar.com

PINOT PATROL WINE TOURS
www.ecotours-of-oregon.com

PRESTIGE WINE TOURS
www.prestigewinetours.com

SUMMIT WINE TOURS
www.summitwinetours.squarespace.com

TESLA CUSTOM WINERY TOURS
www.teslacustomwinerytours.com

THE TROLLEY
www.the-trolley.com

TOUR DE VINE BY HELI
www.tourdevinebyheli.com

TRIANGLE WINE COUNTRY TOURS
www.trianglewinecountry.com

UNCORKED NW WINE TOURS
www.uncorkednw.com

VINO VENTURES
www.vinoventures.com

WINE DIRT TOURS
www.winedirt.com

WINEMAKER TOURS
www.winemakertours.com

WINE HOPPER TOURS
www.winehoppertours.com

As it is, Stefan Czarnecki has a network of about 120 wineries he visits with his guests. And those tourists, increasingly, arrive from other countries. When it comes to local knowledge, he enjoys being able to take guests places they might not have heard about. For this reason, he likes to have some latitude with regard planning the day.

“Most guests enjoy a variety of experiences vs. going to just the larger tasting rooms,” he explained. “The smaller, more intimate tasting experiences have so much to offer as well, even though they don’t always get the press.”

While Kabarsky, behind the wheel of her Mercedes Sprinter Van, does indeed do the driving, she doesn’t like to be referred to in those terms.

“We don’t like to be called ‘drivers,’” she said. “It’s a wine tour, and we’re educating people.”

Clearly she hangs her hat on the sommelier-level knowledge she offers, giving her guests a rich experience, and lunch as well.

“I try to create a day they would not be able to do on their own,” Kabarsky said.

When we spoke with her May 8, she was having a break at Fairsing Vineyard while her clients, a honeymooning couple from back east, enjoyed lunch. “It’s really fun; I love what I do,” she said.

The season for her, like most others, kicks off Memorial Day weekend and runs through Thanksgiving. She says she also likes to take groups along to see harvest. No word on whether she invites them to roll up their sleeves and work, however.

While Karbasky keeps it small, she said she just booked a 30-person group. For opportunities such as these, Jesse Davis, who regularly works as a guide for her company, will help make it a memorable experience.

When we talked to Swenson on May 10, he had a couple out north of Yamhill, in the Ribbon Ridge AVA.

“Our go-to is taking couples out,” he said, explaining that all his tours are private. “We’ve never done one where the people don’t know each other.”

With his business background, Swenson is adept at product differentiation, explaining how his company started doing what nobody else was, which is running a local tour, bringing visitors around with an “insider’s” edge. His drivers, in fact, have other jobs, signing on for the season to handle the workload. Swenson said he really doesn’t see any local business; most clients are coming from the East Coast, Midwest, Texas and California.  International tourists have become more frequent over the last few years.

“We get people from Japan, Germany and New Zealand, to name a few,” he said.

Swenson said his clients love talking with the winemakers as well as getting out and walking the vineyards. And this year, he’s trying a new angle, offering evening tours where he’ll pick people up at about 3 p.m. to visit the wineries. The evening air and the spirit, he says, are inviting.

“I see that as being in demand,” said Swenson. He has two such tours booked.

Earlier, we’d mentioned how there is plenty to go around for wine tour drivers, and Swenson’s business is a testament to that. He says more than a few of his former drivers have gone on to form their own tour companies. It seems there’s always a group or a couple willing to hire a car to roll through the hills and vineyards to experience wine country culture, learn a thing or two and pick up a bottle or two to share with the people back home.

Some of the more remote wineries, or at least the ones off Highway 99W or I-5 corridors, enjoy some business from the visiting tours. Mary Olson of Airlie Winery said it’s always great to see a tour van or a car roll up the drive, but in her characteristic way, she offers cautionary words.

“You never want to be the last stop on a wine tour,” she said, harkening back to the party groups and bachelorette parties that have the potential to descend. Not that she’s complaining.

“They’re happy people out to have a good time,” she said of the tour groups. “And anytime we can get people out to our winery, it’s a good thing.”

Of course, Olson has a reputation for being a gregarious and fun hostess, so her style mixes well with the groups, party or otherwise.

Another emerging trend, said Olson, is for the river tours that take people on rafting and kayaking trips to throw in a winery visit.

The three companies we spoke with are part of 25 on a directory, all of which striving to bring their own brand and to create a unique experience for their guests.

Wine Country Car Service out of Newberg offering the motto, “Your tour, your way,” recently changed their name to Pinot Car.

This company is made up of Newberg natives who went to high school together and, since 2010, have been taking private groups to their favorite wine country haunts, earning the attention of Bed and Breakfast owners and vacation rental managers.

The trio at Pinot Car is an example of how the robust wine industry is making opportunity not just for winemakers here. Pinot Car offers personalized and structured tours, as well as AVA specific tours. The company also branched out to include tours of the oldest vineyards and one that focuses on “The Views.”

“Pairing the natural beauty with a glass of Pinot Noir is truly a breathtaking experience,” states founder Eathan Headley on the company web page. “Join us and take in these amazing views of Mount Hood or the Coast Range and everything in between.”

Indeed, a visual tour as only a local can offer.

Neil Zawicki is a writer who, in his spare time, loves to study history, paint and play his guitar. He lives in Independence with his equally creative wife and four children.

 

 

 

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS