Can you tell us a little bit about yourself ?
Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director since 2006. I have collaborated with multiple local organizations on complex projects. Working with the Winegrape Commission, I created the Presidents’ Council, a body of community and industry leaders that meets regularly to address issues and opportunities that support the wine industry.
The Sonoma County Vintners have played an active role in Taste of Sonoma. How does this event benefit Sonoma County as a whole and what are some other events by the Vintners?
Ms. Comfort: Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance are co-producers of The Taste of Sonoma, which is one of two flagship events during Sonoma Wine Country Weekend – the signature weekend for Sonoma County each September. We feel that Sonoma Wine Country Weekend and the Taste of Sonoma are successful events and offer great visibility for Sonoma County wines, food and tourism for several reasons: Feature the wine, food, and lifestyle that is uniquely Sonoma County; invite guests from across the U.S. to come and be a part of our wine and food community; provide opportunity to meet the people who grow the grapes, make the wine, and produce our local products and cuisine; create hands-on experiences for people learn about and engage – not just another wine tasting; designed to communicate the range of wines produced here, and how they are integral to our local wine and food culture.
How closely intertwined are the wine and tourism sectors in Sonoma County? What are some ways to grow both sectors in your mind?
Wine and tourism are the major drivers of Sonoma County’s economy, so it is essential that they continue to grow and thrive. We have a unique culture here that is warm, inviting, and approachable. It is rooted in wine and our agricultural heritage, but it encompasses the entire wine country lifestyle. People want to come here and be a part of our community for a week or weekend, so the more we can do to reach out to visitors from around the world and offer a glimpse of what makes Sonoma County unique, the more we will continue to grow. The best way to grow both sectors is to continue to work together and approach tourism from the standpoint of making wine accessible, and approach winery hospitality with an eye towards always welcoming the visitor. Social media and electronic communication have greatly increased the ability to spread “word of mouth” and the wine industry has adopted social media faster than most other sectors.
How would you characterize the overall health of the tourism industry? Likewise for the wine industry?
According to our partners at the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, tourism is recovering, as we are seeing growth in occupancy at lodging as well as average daily room rate price. It is slow, but moving in a positive direction. There are aspects of tourism in Sonoma County that have changed: Booking windows are shorter, even for groups and meetings. Also, while value doesn’t drive everything — our higher-end hotels have been doing brisk business — it is still on people’s minds. In the wine industry, we saw migration downward in bottle price and a reduction in dining out as a result of the recession. I am now seeing reports indicating that the downward price migration has ceased, and there is actually upward movement in price, but similarly to the tourism scenario, the purchasing of the pre-recession pricing and volume has not returned.
What challenges face the wine/tourism sectors, and how can Sonoma County face such challenges?
Ms. Comfort: As a domestic wine region, we see increased competition from other domestic wine regions that have arrived in the last 20 years. Every state in America now produces wine at one level or another, so potential visitors on the East Coast, for example, might head to the Finger Lakes instead of coming to Sonoma County. In California, we have also seen the El Dorado Hills, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara come into their own as destinations.
Sonoma County is positioned well in these challenges because we offer so much to a visitor in terms of each of our distinct regions, our 70 miles of rugged coastline and other outdoor activities, and our food products and restaurants. A visitor can return to Sonoma County many times, and still have much to discover on their next trip. We have a calendar of annual food and wine events that offers a wide array of experiences, and quality hotels and spas, too. Not every region has as full an experience as Sonoma County, so we can play to that strength. And we have always offered tremendous quality for the price in terms of a vacation, so we are positioned well for these times.
Sonoma County has seen more local guests in recent years, and when they do come here, they have a memorable visit and will continue to return, even as the economy improves. The flip-side of that is that our out of state visitors are staying closer to home, too, but we continue to market and promote to them to make sure that Sonoma County will be on their radar when they travel again.
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