“If I see one more barrel room,” he whispered, “I am going to scream.”
I feel his pain. As a professional in the wine tourism industry, it’s easy to get sick of looking at the same things over and over.
I’m a graduate student in the Erasmus Mundus International Master on Wine Tourism Innovation. In the past 18 months, I’ve conducted more than 70 field visits to wineries around the world. Today, I’m on an observational visit, playing tourist. As I wait in the crowded reception area of a premier Napa Valley winery, large flat-screen monitors show drone footage of the majestic winery and sprawling vineyards.
The man whispering next to me examines the logo-emblazoned jackets, polos, and aprons hanging on the walls. If he can’t afford one of the extremely expensive bottles produced by the winery, he can at least buy a branded wooden wine box lid for a meager $15. Or if that’s a bit above his touch, he can purchase a flat, thin, metallic disk called a DropStop, to be rolled up and used as a pouring funnel, for $5. Never mind that out on the street someone would think it was a piece of trash that had missed the bin. This floppy little circle has a very important logo printed on it, and he can show it off to all his friends online.
Exorbitant merchandise aside, this is a privileged place to be. The world’s most devoted wine lovers spend years on waitlists just to get the chance to buy a ticket for a tour here. If this winery were a nightclub, the line wouldn’t just be around the block, it would be around the city. He’s lucky he got through the gates to snap a picture. That image will earn him a significant moment of computer-generated wine superiority.
But therein lies the problem: The winery knows that it’s so in demand, they don’t need to give anyone a meaningful experience.
Winery owners are laughing all the way to the bank. He just paid them for the opportunity to market their wines to his group of friends and acquaintances. In today’s reputation economy, wine brands can’t buy that kind of publicity.
Wine visitors are marketing fodder
This has spawned an epidemic of plastic surgery in the cellar. Authenticity, the lifeblood of wine tourism, is long dead. Wineries have devolved from function-driven agricultural workshops into stylized backdrops for amateur modeling sessions.
Today I’m a tourist. But I already know what to expect, because I’ve seen it all first hand at wineries around the world, from the smallest family-owned wineries in the Finger Lakes to the most famed châteaux in Bordeaux. Here’s a little FAQ, answered by me, your friendly tour guide/cellar hand, to show how chasing likes is shaping your hospitality experience.
1. How did they get those barrels lined up so perfectly?
Ah, the barrel room. When you first enter, you audibly gasp. It’s awe-inspiring. But after 20 agonizing minutes of hearing about types of oak, your eyes start leaking tears. “Stop!” you want to cry. “When do we get to taste the wine?!”
You’re not alone. This room made me weep, too. In the thick of the Sisyphean days of harvest, I spent weeks on overtime jockeying empty 110-pound barrels, fumbling with strings and lasers and levels, to arrange them in those harrowingly straight, even rows.
2. How do they keep the barrels so clean? Do they even use them?
Most wineries can’t afford a display-only barrel room, though I’ve seen some that do. Instead, I had to handle these stacked wooden cylinders as if they were Ming porcelain. Amidst 15- plus hour shifts of doing the actual work required to turn grapes into wine, I had to make sure that the product of our labors — possibly the world’s stickiest and most stain-prone juice — didn’t come into contact with any visible parts of our equipment, so that the cellar would be Insta-ready at all times.
From a tank two stories above, I blindly guided 225 liters of wine into each barrel through a bunghole smaller than my wrist. During the weeks that followed, I topped them up four more times with something that looks like a watering can mated with a giraffe. I poured in yeast nutrients in two separate doses. I extracted samples twice per day. If even one drop of wine touched the outside of the barrel it had to be cleaned immediately. Otherwise, it would leave a very unphotogenic stain.
So on top of the pumps, hoses, stainless-steel elbows, tri-clamp fittings, gaskets, fill gauges, pitchers, buckets, whisks, scales, tubes, wine thieves, hydrometers, graduated cylinders, funnels, clipboards, papers, and pens I needed in order to perform the actual tasks, I also had to carry two sponges, a bucket of clean water and a towel large enough to seat my family at the beach.
3. Why is the cellar floor soaking wet?
I hosed it down five minutes before you arrived. Photographs look better with glossy, sparkling floors.
4. How old are those beautiful foudres?
Foudres are large wooden vats that have been used in Europe for centuries. They were once crucial to the production of high-end wines through a process known as micro-oxygenation.
Not here, though.
Although the wood looks worn, they were built two years ago. They’re actually stainless steel, clad with wooden planks to make a prettier background for your selfie.
These little works of trompe l’oeil are just fun and games.
In some wineries, human guides are being replaced with museum-style audio recordings. Can we really blame them? From the moment tourists arrive, they’re pulling their phones out. They’re here for the hashtag lifestyle. They want to learn just enough to write a witty caption and capture the perfect shot of the shiny cellar floors. Many of them will admit that they don’t even really like wine — they’re just here for the photo-op.
The impact of social media
Before 2010, it was unthinkable, in most wineries, to run around taking pictures and ignoring the guide. Visiting a vineyard was a sacred rite. A way to experience a different way of life and take time to unplug and unwind.
Social media soured those motivations. Selfie sticks and straw hats replaced insightful experiences and meaningful conversations. Forget about transformative cultural interactions. Whether in Napa, Tuscany, or Priorat — we’re visiting wineries to make our followers jealous. Then, in their envy, they go to Sonoma, or Beaujolais or Stellenbosch to take the same placeless pictures: dimly lit barrels, cute sundresses, anonymous green vines, and high-priced glassware holding onion-skin pink rosé.
Maybe I’m tired of seeing the same vapid, elitist imagery. Maybe I’m jealous. Yet the issues of virtual wine cachet go beyond rolling my eyes at the social media feed.
Over-tourism is creating serious social problems in places like Napa Valley. Try driving from San Francisco to Calistoga during peak hours. Severe congestion will double the estimated trip time. Vacation rentals have pushed the cost of living so high that harvest workers can’t afford a place to stay. Cellar hands sleep in vans, just to find a roof over their heads.
This obsession with going viral isn’t just murdering wine tourism, it’s murdering wine regions. Local residents who haven’t already fled spend more time listening to drunk tourists screaming obscenities than birds chirping. Even a quick run to the grocery store means you’ll be spending hours in smog-smothered bumper-to-bumper traffic.
To get to this prestigious winery’s reception, we all endured hours on the same roads. But as I survey the crowd, I wonder: Will the reality of F-150s and Priuses and 10-passenger Mercedes vans backed up on Highway 29 fit into anyone’s carefully planned IG layout? Or will it just be shot after shot of some artfully-cropped, vine-filled nirvana?
It’s easy to criticize others. But when I consider my own culpability, I am chagrined. I have thousands of heavily edited, overly filtered winery photos. Scroll through my camera reel and you’ll find more pictures of bucolic grapevines than of my nephews. My profile picture is taken in a barrel room.
Even still, as we wait, my fingers itch to reach for my camera. But this time I left my phone in the car. Because what we stand to lose from this epidemic of social media is not only about the wineries and wine regions, it’s also about our own quality of life. And the most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s still possible, especially at a winery, to just have a good time without telling a soul about it online.
After all, the best wine experiences begin with us — the tourists. Are we willing to truly learn, engage, and participate, or are we there to drink and be entertained? Can we treat the guides like human beings, or do we demand them to deliver a Broadway performance and have a Master Sommelier level of wine knowledge?
The next step is about setting our expectations. If you’re visiting wineries on a bus tour, good for you, you are going to have a really fun day. Look forward to a fantastic, extremely touristic, likely inauthentic experience. You can check their hashtags in advance to get a very clear picture of what you’ll find there.
But if you want to talk to the fifth-generation winemaker, you’re going to have to call to make a reservation — during business hours, on weekdays. And you might need to speak the native language. The driving directions to the winery could say something like, “When you see three donkeys at the fence, turn left.” Just go with it, the donkeys will be there, they were for me, and you’ll have the time of your life. Authentic wineries are everywhere in the world — but probably not on social media.