Wine Not

Meeting Planning

Before talking about wineries and vineyards across the country as event destinations, it’s worth first asking why they should be considered. There are no doubt more convenient, cheaper alternatives—and just about every single one of them will offer wine if requested.

Even people who work at wineries and vineyards know there are plenty of other venue options. For example, Tom Knighton, owner and general manager of Michigan’s Blustone Vineyards, has a background in customer-experience management. His day job is as a management consultant, and he has been to and led plenty of events in hotels and conference rooms.

“There are certainly times when those are the places to be,” he says. “They serve their purpose well. But if you want an event that’s going to be memorable, that’s going to feel very personal, there is a personal connection that people create with a vineyard. A vineyard is a very organic place where nature is growing something beautiful. People look out the windows and they see where the grapes were grown, where we created the wine that they’re drinking.”

This philosophy can also be found, of course, at America’s benchmark for grape-growing regions, Napa Valley, with romanticized vineyards and wineries every bit as robust as Blustone. “There is such a difference in the atmosphere of a larger event held at a winery compared to that of a traditional conference room,” says Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “It’s all pretty intoxicating, with the smell of the barrels, sense of craftsmanship, feeling of history in the winery walls—and even the lighting.”

MEET Michigan

Blustone Vineyards, Lake Leelanau, Mich.

Napa Valley is invoked as a quasi-adjective to describe all sorts of stuff. USA Today, for example, ran a 2012 article discussing Virginia’s credentials as the “Napa Valley of oysters.” Alabama-based Evans Meats Inc. boasts that its beef comes from—you guessed it—the “Napa Valley of beef.” And Visit Denver, the official travel and visitor bureau for Colorado’s capital, posits that the area between Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins is the “Napa Valley of beer.” (Due to recent tweaks in Colorado’s drug laws, the state is fast becoming known as the “Napa Valley of marijuana,” as well.)

Northern California’s treasure has been invoked as a complimentary proxy for Blustone Vineyards, which certainly has more in common with Napa Valley than a Virginia oyster farm. Blustone is situated in gorgeous Leelanau County, a lake-dotted, beach-streaked chunk of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. ABC’s Good Morning America dubbed Leelanau’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—which contains 64 miles of beach, a pair of islands and 25 lakes—as the most beautiful place in America. “When they come to Blustone, a lot of people say, ‘You’ve got the Napa Valley view,’” Knighton says.

Like other wineries and vineyards in the area, Blustone does everything it can to tap into nature on and around the vineyard. Blustone’s tasting room, one of two event spaces, sits on top of a hill and, with 270-degree views, overlooks the adjacent valley. In spring, the cherry trees create a sea of white; in summer, the winery and the neighboring vineyards are doused with green; in fall, there is a kaleidoscope of color; and in winter, well, it’s Michigan, so the charm comes from the cold, including a cross-country ski trail.

Traverse City’s Chateau Chantal combines its winery and event spaces with an 11-unit bed-and-breakfast. Chateau Chantal is situated on a 65-acre estate on Old Mission Peninsula, next door to Leelanau County, and boasts views of rolling vineyards from each window.

Chateau Chantal, Traverse City, Mich.

“People can have their events in an environment where the boardroom meets the vineyard,” says Ann Pettyjohn, Chateau Chantal’s hospitality manager and events coordinator. “And the northern Michigan comfort and beauty promote open conversations and the flow of creative ideas.”

Robert and Nadine Begin founded Chateau Chantal. Robert was formerly a Catholic diocesan priest near Detroit and Nadine had been a member of the Felician Sisters. In 1974, both decided to follow a different path, pursuing Robert’s dream of building a European-style winery chateau.

“After completing and opening the operation, it was evident that the years spent in service to others had molded the Begins into the perfect hosts,” Pettyjohn says. “Their caring and enthusiastic spirit helps create the most special and memorable of visits.”

In 2003, the chateau underwent an expansion that added eight B&B units and the 2,000-square-foot Hospitality Room, which houses everything from casual fireside seating to formal classroom-style presentations. There is also the executive conference room, which accommodates up to 15.

Like Blustone, Chateau Chantal is helping to establish Michigan as a bona fide wine state. The winery won a Best of Class award for its 2011 Reserve Pinot Gris at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. Traverse City was dubbed one of USA Today’s Top 10 Places to Enjoy Local Wines in 2010 and among TripAdvisor.com’s Top Ten Wine Destinations in America in 2009.

“We do face a certain unknown factor with our wine region, but that is quickly changing,” Pettyjohn says. “I’d say the secret is getting out, but there is plenty of awareness building and education to help us build ourselves into the Napa Valley of the Midwest.”

SHOW ME Wine

Les Bourgeois Vineyards, Rocheport, Mo.

Missouri’s lack of reputation as a wine area belies its credentials. The Show Me State has more than 120 wineries and nine organized wine trails, with a penchant for French-American hybrids with quirky names such as chardonel, vidal, vignoles, chambourcin and traminette.

Just as Missouri doesn’t get its due as a wine hot spot, it is also undervalued for its outdoors. The state does not share the pancake attributes of neighbors such as Kansas and Iowa. Instead, Missouri is crisscrossed by rivers, lined with bluffs and topped with hills. And just as wine can enhance a meal, Missouri’s geography can enhance its wineries.

“The layout of many vineyards and picturesque settings makes for an ideal destination,” says Katie Steele Danner, director of the Missouri Division of Tourism. “They provide a great opportunity to work in a more relaxed atmosphere, where you get a different sense of place. In a meeting or session, you’re focused on the topic at hand, but when you stop for a break, you’re immediately in the moment of being at a destination.”

Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport is one such destination, located on bluff-top property along the Missouri River. Les Bourgeois produces more than 140,000 gallons of wine each year, and it has some great spots for taking them in, including the Blufftop Bistro and A-Frame wine garden, each with views of the “Mighty Mo.”

“One of the big perks about hosting an event at Les Bourgeois Vineyards is the atmosphere,” says Tia Stratman, market specialist. “We are lucky to have such a gorgeous property with a breathtaking view.”

Hermannhof Winery, Hermann, Mo.

Also making excellent use of Missouri River views is Hermannhof Winery, originally a 19th-century brewery that was closed during Prohibition,  then  used as a boarding house and finally reborn as a winery in the 1970s. Hermannhof, located in Hermann, has a pair of indoor event spaces, including Festhalle, a German-themed hall and Hermann Mill, a converted grain elevator. There is also the ice house, for corporate meetings, and the barrel room.

Event Director Rozanna Benz says Hermannhof is particularly proud of its newest Norton, the official state grape of Missouri. What’s so great about it? It’s blended with Syrah grapes—from California.

OREGON Wine Trail

Oregon is close to California in terms of both geography and wine-making clout. TripAdvisor.com tabbed Oregon’s Willamette Valley as the No. 3 wine destination in the United States; Lane County, part of the valley and home to the state’s second-biggest city, Eugene, has more than a dozen wineries. Oregon is a case study in why wineries are the perfect change-up from a more conventional event venue.

Pfeiffer Vineyards, Junction City, Ore.

Jessica Chestnut, social media and public relations manager for Travel Lane County, poses a good question: “What are you more likely to remember, the company retreat at that conference room downtown where you struggled to find parking and sat at a table under fluorescent lighting, or the company retreat on the patio of the winery where you listened to the crackle of the fire and watched the sun dip below the hills with a glass of wine in hand?”

Touche.

“Wineries can also provide a serene quality that you may not get from a hotel or convention center located in a bustling city,” she adds. “There’s something so peaceful about getting out of town, even if only a few miles out, and into the country with the incredible views, the clean air and the fewer distractions and noise.”

There are plenty of places to (not) work in Oregon’s wine country, including Sweet Cheeks Winery, named for a bizarre swell on the hillside that is home to the vines. In operation since 2005, the winery, just south of Eugene, has 55 acres of grapes—the lifeblood of wines that include pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and more. Production has spiked from 1,250 cases when it first opened to 8,000 today. Sweet Cheeks completed work on a large outdoor patio in 2006, so that’s the summer space, and the barrel rooms can be cleared out for events when it’s cold. But the outdoors are not off-limits in the winter: Late last year, Sweet Cheeks enclosed its patio space, adding an outdoor bar and soapstone fireplace, thereby equipping the space for 100-plus people.

Pfeiffer Vineyards, in Junction City, is one of Lane County’s oldest venues. The first solar-powered winery in Willamette Valley, Pfeiffer’s 70-acre vineyard paired up with three decades of craftsmanship to produce a pinot noir that was part of President Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration dinner.

In terms of event spaces, Pfeiffer Vineyards has a four-tier water garden, a waterfall and space for 250 standing or 60-70 seated. The Fireplace Pavilion, a 4,440-square-foot room, is warmed by ceiling heaters and a giant fireplace. Finally, the tasting room, which hearkens to a cave, seats about 20 people and is perfect for small gatherings.

With a bounty of top-flight wine and an even greater bounty of natural beauty, Oregon’s wine scene is second to none. Well, maybe not, considering the world-class status of the state directly below it.

VINTAGE California

Napa Valley Wine Train

As grand as Napa Valley’s name is, it’s not such a big area: roughly 30 miles north to south, and 2–5 miles east to west. Napa also produces just 4 percent of California’s wine. As Visit Napa Valley’s Gregory puts it, “The area is quite small considering its big reputation.”

But it’s big enough to house the nation’s preeminent wines, as well as more than enough activities to fill pass the time. Hiking and biking, hot air ballooning, entertainment options at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park…the list goes on. The weather—60s and 70s are par for the course even in the heart of winter—helps facilitate those experiences and more wine-specific endeavors.

“The climate of Napa Valley allows events to take place outside nearly every day of the year,” Gregory says. “Many wineries put event space in their vineyards, so there are often dinners, receptions and meetings outside.”

If it gets a bit chilly, no problem. A slew of wineries host events in wine caves, a totally unique, totally Napa way to pull off a meeting.

There are more than a few options when it comes to picking a vineyard or winery. One spot is Hall Wines, which has two Napa Valley locations—in Rutherford and St. Helena. The St. Helena property boasts a wine-making facility that dates back to 1885. When the property was purchased in 2003, the dilapidated building was restored to its original luster and transformed into one of several charming venues. Peterson’s Loft (with views of the nearby vineyard and mountains) and the Founder’s Cellar (which seats 44 people at a “king’s table” with rows of barrels used as decoration) are also choice spaces. There’s also The Great Lawn, which can handle up to 400 people, and The Workshop, where up to 60 can try out a cooking class.

Among the hundreds of Napa Valley treasures are Pine Ridge Vineyards, which has a dining room 130 feet underground in cabernet caves, highlighted by a 27-piece glass sculpture at the center of the room; and the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is exactly what it sounds like: 10 passenger cars that can be used for event spaces as guests weave through one of America’s most stunning landscapes.

Napa Valley may have worked its way into American vernacular as a synonym for awesome, but nearby Sonoma is no slouch. “We are just west of Napa Valley, and if we are as Eden-like as many people claim, then our friends in Napa are just east of Eden,” says Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism.

In Sonoma, hiking abounds in the regional and coastal state parks; kayaking can be done the Russian River or Pacific Ocean; and ziplining can be found among the area’s giant redwoods.

Chalk Hill winery, which touts itself as “one of the most spellbinding wineries in the world,” is nestled in the Mayacamas Mountain Range, which divides Napa and Sonoma counties. With more than 1,300 acres devoted to vineyards, Chalk Hill also has a culinary garden, an equestrian pavilion and guest houses. The Pavilion Boardroom has 1,147 sq. ft. of meeting space, while Ridge Park features a rock-wall-lined pathway, manicured lawn, gazebo, horseshoe pit and 26,680 sq. ft.

Sbragia Family Vineyards, Geyserville, Calif.

Sbragia Family Vineyards, meanwhile, takes full advantage of its out-of-a-painting views. Its terrace is the perfect locale to take in Sbragia’s tastings, as is The Ark, where the winery offers explorative and educational flights of its five single-vineyard cabernets. Each flight is hosted by an onsite wine expert who is at the ready to answer any questions—and offer suggestions on what the next glass should be. But this, of course, is a small sampling of Sonoma’s potential.

“Groups love to incorporate a wine-blending class or a grape stomp as part of their team-building activities,” Zahner says. “The beauty of having over 500 wineries in the county is that you can take your time and try more unique wines that are being made.”

And you can do this before, during or after the meeting.


Cutting-Edge Concoctions

While different regions tend to have certain specialties—for instance, Missouri has a thing for sweet white wines, and Napa Valley is home to world famous cabernet sauvignon—winemakers throughout the country like to experiment. This leads to some odd, but tasty concoctions.

Blustone Vineyard in Lake Leelanau, Mich., expresses its creative side with Ad-Lib, a hodgepodge of five different types of grapes left over at the end of the harvest. “The label on Ad-Lib tells the story: an ‘underappreciated wine with an inferiority complex,’” says Tom Knighton, owner and general manager of Blustone. “You may be surprised. It’s actually our best-selling wine.”

Meanwhile, Sweet Cheeks Winery, near Eugene, Ore., has “Rosy Cheeks.” A blend of white and red grapes with a medium sweetness, it is available exclusively in the winery’s tasting room. “It has been an incredibly successful wine for us,” says Kacy Minnis, the manager.

And wineries are by no means done tinkering. Myriah Collins Mutrux, hospitality and events manager at Napa Valley’s Hall Wines, says that its goal is to make the best cabernet around and to showcase different regions in the process: “Hopefully one day we’ll be about to make cabernets from peach-growing regions.”


Resources


Wine Country Lodging  

in the Golden State

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

California has plenty of luxury resorts and hotels near its famous vineyards and wineries, and many of them are located in the Napa/Sonoma region.

The city of Napa boasts Andaz Napa in the heart of downtown, with 141 guest rooms and 2,900 sq. ft. of meeting space; and The Meritage Resort and Spa, set against rolling hills and providing 502 guest rooms and 50,000 sq. ft.

Favorites in Santa Rosa are the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, which offers panoramic views of the spectacular Santa Rosa Valley, along with 250 guest rooms and 11,000 sq. ft.; and Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, blending modern amenities with the glamorous ambiance of a 1950s summer resort in its 170 guest rooms and 13,000 sq. ft.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is one of the top properties in the city of Sonoma. It has extraordinary cuisine, a state-of-the-art spa, 225 guest rooms and 10,000 sq. ft.

Three attractive properties in wine-growing regions outside the Napa/Sonoma area are Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, a relaxing waterfront retreat with 379 guest rooms and 50,000 sq. ft.; Hotel Corque in Solvang (34 miles northwest of Santa Barbara), an ultra-luxury boutique hotel with 106 guest rooms and 7,500 sq. ft.; and Ponte Vineyard Inn in Temecula (92 miles from downtown Los Angeles), a 60-room boutique hotel in the heart of wine country that provides 8,000 sq. ft.


Inside Scoop on Wine Country

Savvy planners eyeing the Napa and Sonoma valleys as potential meeting places will want to tap into the Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley & Sonoma (CANVAS), a Smart Meetings partner.

CANVAS’ 1,000-plus members are hospitality professionals from area wineries, hotels, restaurants, tourism and other businesses. They stay on top of what’s new and who’s who through CANVAS’ series of networking events, educational seminars and site visits, and can play a key role in tailoring conference activities and itineraries.

CANVAS also hosts planners at an annual trade show, this year on July 15 at luxurious, art-filled Hall St. Helena winery in Napa. Attendees experience the very best of local Wine Country during a day featuring delectable food, elegant décor, entertainment, select site and winery visits and an outdoor exhibit hall. (Space is limited and the fee is $115; see conciergealliancenv.com.)

Planners who can’t make the show “should get on our mailing list so they receive the monthly newsletter,” said Colby Smith, CANVAS co-founder and executive director. “It has all the inside scoop on what’s happening in wine country,” such as new wineries opening and enhanced meeting facilities.