EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon wine already has a reputation for quality, from renowned Willamette Valley Pinot noir to Chardonnay, rosé and Syrah.
But just as important to the industry's success is sharing knowledge with consumers, and providing them with an overall experience in the tasting room, according to a panel of winemakers who spoke April 16 at the 2019 Oregon Governor's Conference on Tourism in Eugene.
"I've kind of become more of an event planner than I ever thought I'd be," said Lorrie Normann, who owns Valhalla Winery with her husband, Eric, in nearby Veneta, Ore.
Normann said the winery now hosts events such as adult prom and beach parties to bring in new visitors, especially millennials, who market research suggests value experiences over material goods.
"That's the kind of approach we've taken," Normann said. "We are a lot more direct-to-consumer, getting them in the tasting room and giving them an experience."
Other members of the panel included Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards south of Salem; Melissa Burr, vice president of winemaking at Stoller Wine Group in Dayton; and Barbara Steele, owner of Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.
As Oregon wine continues to grow, so do opportunities to support tourism across the state. The state is home to 769 wineries, 1,114 vineyards and 19 American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, which are federal designations of unique wine regions.
According to the Oregon Wine Board's 2017-18 annual report, the industry generated $5.61 billion in economic impact — an increase of 67% over the last three years — while wine tourism more than doubled in value to $787 million.
Clair attributed the growth in part to "a sense of discovery" for people traveling to Oregon. She said wineries can further promote tourism by partnering with state and local organizations, and promoting their AVA to foster a unique sense of place.
"Once people come to Oregon, it's a sense of place that they take back, and it lives forever," Clair said.
Burr said wineries are doing a good job of listening to consumers, and educating them about where their wine comes from, and how it is made. She referenced Oregon Pinot Camp, where about 50 wineries invite two industry representatives each for a weekend of intense learning to better tell the Oregon wine story.
"That is, I think, a grassroots effort that has been done very well," Burr said.
Normann said she has also had a great experience working with Travel Lane County, a local nonprofit tourism association.
"All we have to do is say yes to anything they want to do, and it's a done deal," Normann said. "That partnership has been amazing for our local wine scene."
But there are still challenges to overcome. Clair described broad market distribution as a "bloodbath" as they seek more retail shelf space, which has led them to focus more on local and regional placement.
"It does take a lot more pounding the pavement, and a lot more relationship building," she said.
Steele said smoke from wildfires also continues to pose a problem, running the risk of tainting grapes. She said more needs to be done to research smoke taint and educate consumers to avoid a negative connotation of Oregon wines.
"Smoke is tangible to everything," Steele said. "It's certainly had a large economic impact in Southern Oregon."
Steele said the local industry recently founded its own trade association, Rogue Valley Vintners, and is working with Travel Southern Oregon on joint branding, from wine to hospitality to outdoor recreation.
"In our area, we believe the best way to ground people in the experience is to show them the totality of the experience in southern Oregon, and then share with them a glass of wine," Steele said.