SONOMA, Calif. -- Winter is always the slowest season in California's wine country, but as summer approaches this year, merchants and civic boosters are keeping a close eye on visitor numbers. A lot is riding on a strong high season, which runs from Memorial Day through the grape harvest in September and October.
Both Napa and Sonoma counties depend on visitors for the lion's share of their revenue, each collecting more than $1.3 billion a year from tourists who come to eat, drink and rejuvenate in Northern California's wine region.
Those visitors can also make or break the small wineries that line the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Tasting-room sales account for a healthy portion of their annual revenue, from 40% to nearly 100% at small wineries.
Boosters like to think the region is versatile enough to attract visitors even in a down economy, citing as key drivers the bucolic landscape, gastronomic diversity and proximity to an appreciative population. They're also smart enough to realize that tough times call for creativity, cooperation and extra attention to the details.
"We're on the doorstep of 9 million people who live in Sacramento and the Bay Area," said David Turgeon, CEO of the Napa Valley Destination Council. "They're coming to us for two or three days as an escape from whatever they're dealing with.
"When we ask them what captivates them most about the Napa Valley, they say wine and food, but they also mention the calm, laid-back, quiet, rural setting. They say, 'I could see the stars at night,' and they can't believe how many there are in the sky."
Going with the flow
When occupancy rates fall to 44%, as they did in February in Napa, "businesses take this quieter time to position themselves so they can optimize the available business when it comes April through October," Turgeon said. And they go with the flow.
The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau is shifting its marketing focus to Bay Area residents and piggybacking on state tourism efforts to bring in the international market, said Tim Zahner, director of public relations.
"About 25% of the people who visit San Francisco also come to wine country," he said. "We're targeting them, too."
Although Sonoma County's occupancy rate fell to 45% in February, the upscale KOA Kampground in Petaluma, a town in southern Sonoma County, registered healthy growth.
In addition to traditional camping spots, the property introduced deluxe lodges in 2008 that exceeded revenue projections by 30%.
"They provide first-time campers with all the comforts of home" at an affordable price, said owner Chris Wood.
Merchants in the city of Sonoma got a midwinter boost from a different kind of lodging: a $2 million Dream Home built there by HGTV and given to one lucky viewer in March. More than 6,000 hopefuls paid for private tours, and thousands more traveled through town for a glimpse.
"I couldn't have imagined anything nicer in the middle of winter," said Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. "But even when people are worried about flying or spending, they still come here to picnic, or walk or hike for free. It's a restorative place."
Fourth-generation Sonoma Valley winegrowers Jeff Kunde and Marcia Kunde Mickelson are encouraging visitors to pull off the Sonoma Highway by offering the chance to get close to the grapes at their 1,850-acre Kunde Family Estate Vineyards.
Kunde is leading monthly tours through the vineyards, allowing dogs along on three of the hikes and designing a fourth for bicyclists.
"We're trying to make sure we stand out," said Mickelson. She hopes people who spend time on the ranch with her brother will come to appreciate their family's commitment to sustainable farming and develop a loyalty to the grapes they've spent their time with.
Landmark Vineyards also is opening its property to visitors on summer Saturdays, driving traffic into the tasting room with wagon rides, live music, boccie and picnics. "Everything is free," said Bruce MacKay, director of consumer sales and marketing. "All we ask is that they buy some wine."
An hour north, tiny Healdsburg is emerging as one of Sonoma County's fastest-growing tourist destinations. The town of 11,000 is well situated along Highway 101, boasts a historical plaza at its core and sits at the confluence of three fertile, wine-producing valleys that are relatively untraveled.
With nationally known gourmet restaurants and sophisticated lodging options, Healdsburg should be well positioned to weather the recession, but midweek bookings have been soft this winter. Wine growers have called on their trade group, the Russian River Wine Road, to bring in tourists for tasting events.
Sales have grown so steadily that the Barrel Tasting event in March attracted 22,000 participants from 37 states. More than 5,000 stopped at Truett-Hurst Winery, an 18-month-old operation that specializes in biodynamic farming. They drove sales up 20% to 30% over last year's numbers, according to co-owner Phil Hurst.
Sondra Bernstein has noticed the same phenomenon at the Girl & the Fig, her French country restaurant in downtown Sonoma. Business is up 20% this year, which Bernstein credits to years of hard work and a great location in the town's downtown plaza.
Pizza and pinot
News is not so upbeat at her other two properties: the Fig Cafe in nearby Glen Ellen, and Estate, a high-end restaurant she opened this winter in a 19th century Sonoma mansion. To get things rolling at Estate, Bernstein started a Pizza and Pinot special, with individual 12-inch pizzas and a glass of pinot grigio or pinot noir for $10.
"We're not making any money on it, but we're keeping cars in the parking lot," Bernstein said.
Likewise, the Napa Valley Wine Train is keeping its cars on the tracks; it introduces visitors to the nation's best-known wine destination via rail.
Riding in cars that range from a 1915 Pullman to a 1958 Vista Dome, guests are treated to a gourmet meal as they travel between Napa and St. Helena.
"A lot of our passengers are new to the valley," said spokeswoman Melodie Hilton, so they are introduced to the process of wine tasting while they wait for the train. A concierge is available to help them arrange other ways to pass their time in Napa.
Business has remained steady at about 135,000 passengers annually, Hilton said, primarily because the experience is one-of-a-kind.