Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Report from: Niagara Wine Festival (passport program) – September 29-30, 2007

Last Niagara Festival (New Vintages Festival) I rated the wineries based on their value for offering with respect to the new-style passport program. Before I continue let me explain the new way versus the old way. The old way you bought a passport and could visit as many wineries as you wished taking advantage of what they had on offer for the program (food pairing, new vintage wine tasting, tour, etc.). The new way is called a “winery experience” – you buy your passport and only have 5 tear-off tickets, which you surrender to each winery you visit when you take advantage of what they are offering. The new way forces you to be more selective with the wineries you visit, thus you want to make sure you are getting bang-for-your-buck (afterall you can only visit 5). The old way you paid $30 and had free reign to visit whomever you wished … the new way you pay $30 and can visit 5 wineries, and, if you do the math, they had better be doling out something worth a minimum of a $6 experience. The flipside of the new way is that those without passports pay $10 for the “experience” – so the passport becomes the more economical way. The old way, the passport you bought was only good for 1 of the 2 weekends of the festival; the new way your passport is good throughout the length of the festival.

Now, for what I am about to write I might just lose my ticket privileges for any upcoming festival (Icewine, New Vintages) but someone has to say it … the new way really stinks; and the folks in the Grape and Wine Festival hierarchy better find a newer way to deal with the passport program or get rid of it entirely, because it just isn’t working right and its turning people off. This time round I am not going to rate the wineries on their value of their “experience”, because many are working with an antiquated way of thinking when it comes to these events, they are thinking ‘old way’, when they should be thinking “experience”; or better yet, they should be asking themselves, “what would I pay $10 for, or at least six?” And now I ask, was the new way thrust upon them or did they all buy into it from the beginning – no one has told me either way, but let’s delve into this thing a little deeper, shall we?

Last time I gave out value awards based on whether the “experience” was worth your 10 or 6 dollars, depending on whether our not you were holding a passport ($6) or walking in fresh off the street (min. $10). This time very few I visited would have received a passing grade. So I looked instead at the system they are working within. Each winery had to develop something worth $10 and call it an “experience”; basically it had to be something the public would be willing to shell out $10 for. Some fell so far short I’m ashamed to name them: Magnotta (prosciutto on a crostini paired with a splash of three wines); Stoney Ridge (try 2 of 4 pre-release wines for free); Hernder (bread dipper, 6 half pieces of French bread, with a glass of Riesling) – these were nowhere near $6 values, let alone $10, or as in the case of Hernder they would have charged you $15 if you just walked off the street. 15 dollars for what? The privilege of sitting on their patio?

Wineries like Flat Rock (4 cheese with 4 wine pairing); Maleta (nibbly platter and three new wines); Inniskillin (potato and rosemary pizza and glass of Merlot) and Riverview (taste the raw grapes that the wines came from) at least came close to equaling the minimum $6 standard and/or provided an “experience”; whether I would have paid $10 for any of them is another story.

Then we have those that tried to deliver, but got caught up in the bureaucracy or logistics of what they were trying to do. Peller had a vineyard tour, which sounded great, “exploring the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes [while touring through the vineyard]”, but the logistics happened to be a 45 minute tour at either 1pm and 3pm, and if you were off those hours then they had nothing else for you – plus if they filled up, you got bupkis. Speaking of filling up, Hillebrand had an Artisan Cheese and Wine Tasting seminar … they had expanded the schedule from the published 1:30 and 4:30 time slots to include more classes, but when I arrived at 12:30 they were booking for 3:00 … I had no idea where I was going to be at 3:00, nor would I hang around for 2 and a half hours and wait – plus the girls behind the desk were a bit flustered and frustrated as to how to accept tickets for the event and how many.

I dropped by Pillitteri and learned that their trolley tour was scheduled every hour on the hour, reservations required, but drop-ins were welcome. Charles Pillitteri informed me that they could run them every 15 minutes, if necessary, “if we get that busy we just put on another trolley; we don’t want to disappoint anybody.” After their tour of the vineyard they go upstairs for a tasting, finished off with icewine. You heard it here folks, every 15 minutes if necessary, now that makes sense, that cuts down on the wait time, and who can’t stick around for 15 minutes to wait for the next train – sure beats the 2 and a half hours I would have waited at Hillebrand or 2 at Peller.

One winery told me, “It’s a logistical nightmare, I have to stagger shift my staff for the park because we’re there for upwards of 12 hours; as well as having to over-staff the winery. Then I have to come up with something creative for passport holders. We’re busier this year than last, and we participated in the program last year; but this year I don’t have the stock or need the staffing hassle.”

I have also talked with a number of people who have taken part in the old passport program and the new “winery experience” program – and trust me when I tell you, each one, to a person, enjoyed the old way better. The new way there is more of a chance of feeling ripped off (“I gave up one of my tickets for that?!?” / “I paid $10 for that?!?”). I understand the need to improve and move forward with the program, but there just has to be a better way or the wineries have to think outside the old box. For $10 the old standby of a simple food and wine pairing just doesn’t fly – it has to be more exotic. The tours are nice, but people aren’t gonna stick around for hours to take them … you have to have other options for them if they don’t. Some wineries were offering $10 off a dinner/meal as an option … not sure how well that goes over as I didn’t take anyone up on it … though I’m sure the dinners were spectacular, most barrel/winemaker’s dinners are, but is that really something for the passport program?

Now admittedly, I didn’t get to every winery – heck with two passports I could only hit 10, and that was only if the winery allowed me to share the experience with a friend, otherwise I forked over two tickets per. I call on the Grape and Wine Festival to look over their passport program, re-evaluate the changes, talk to their members and participating wineries, get their feedback; as well as that of the public, those who have experience both ways, as to their likes and dislikes. As mentioned, I know many loyal Ontario winery fans and wine drinkers who are put off by the new structure and will not be participating if it continues the way it is; some have already dropped out with more doing it next time. Will they be listened to? Will I? Time will tell … I truly hope they do, because it’s a shame to see such a wonderful idea (passport program) and lively group of festivals get a blemish like this.

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