A $ 550 flight over the vineyards of Carneros in a vintage airplane. Glasses of champagne on a limousine ride to a vineyard, from $ 850. Private tutorials with Wine Country chefs on how to pull mozzarella. And for an additional $ 750, Baccarat crystal glasses engraved with your name.

These are just a few of the extravagant wine tasting experiences available in Napa Valley right now – and the demand for them, winemakers report, has never been higher. Some wineries are adding tastings that cost $ 500 or more, and concierges that charge over $ 1,000 per day hire to meet the demands of people wanting unique and private experiences.

Chicago’s Lindsay Johnson and Mike Lefeld mark their engagement with a tasting at Theorem Vineyards in Calistoga.

Alvin AH Jornada / Special for The Chronicle

“June is not usually a great month for wine hospitality here, especially for premium reds,” says Tim Martin, owner of Tusk Estates and Immortal Estate, who has just started offering a 550 tasting. $. “But the demands are out of the ordinary. I haven’t seen traffic like this in years.

With the end of pandemic restrictions in California and global warming, it’s no surprise that tourists are flocking to Wine Country. But this version of wine tasting is a far cry from what the masses who descend into the bustling tasting bars along Highway 29 experience. The bills for that upscale Napa vacation can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars; some winegrowers have even expressed surprise at how quickly their most expensive offerings are selling, given the economic impact of the pandemic.

Tor Kenward, owner of Tor Wines in St Helena, didn’t expect a huge rush when he started hosting a new premium wine tasting last year called the Black Magic Experience. For $ 950 per person, visitors can visit renowned wineries like To Kalon, Vine Hill Ranch, and Dr. Crane, the fruits of which go into his Black Magic Cabernet. Considering the high price tag, Kenward believed it would take some time to build interest in wine tasting. And yet, “we have a much greater demand for this than we are able to meet now,” he says.

Champagne is poured into fine crystal flutes at Theorem Vineyards in Calistoga.

Champagne is poured into fine crystal flutes at Theorem Vineyards in Calistoga.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

This is a turning point from recent fears that the valley is slipping into a slowdown in tourism due to the COVID-19 crisis and the forest fires of 2020. Now the air is clean, the sky orange in 2020 is no more than a distant memory. The rich seem eager to spend their money in Napa Valley.

The fact that there is money for such luxury leisure activities could be due to the broader economic patterns of the moment: According to the Institute for Policy Studies, American billionaires have increased their fortunes by 45% over the course of of the first 12 months of the pandemic. But there is also pent-up demand for non-billionaires who are willing to travel and spend money again. Theorem Vineyards, located on Diamond Mountain in Calistoga, receives more requests for tastings than it can accommodate, says owner Kisha Itkin.

This goes for the standard experience at Theorem, which includes a tour, a tasting of three to four wines, and a cheese plate ($ 150- $ 250), as well as its more expensive offerings: a tasting that involves a ride in limousine from your home or hotel with champagne, followed by a private wine pairing ($ 850 to $ 1,500 per couple, depending on distance by car); and Theorem Vineyards Baccarat Experience, which features a custom engraved crystal wine glass made by the French company Baccarat ($ 750 per person).

Theorem receives more requests for tastings than he can accommodate, according to owner Kisha Itkin.

Theorem receives more requests for tastings than he can accommodate, according to owner Kisha Itkin.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

A persistent desire for social distancing can also contribute to the high demand: a private experiment can now be worth a premium. “People are definitely willing to pay a little more because it’s so private,” says James Cerda, vice president of sales and marketing for Theorem.

Plus, many Americans are still wary of international travel – and many countries are still not open to tourism – domestic destinations like Napa and Sonoma likely receive some of that summer traffic. And a lot of those who travel there probably want to do something special. Experts say that when the pandemic ends, people they search more adventurous and unique experiences, perhaps because COVID was such a stark reminder of our mortality.

Angela Duerr, owner of A Cultured Vine concierge service, which runs luxury experiences in Napa Valley, says interest in high-end experiences in Napa is the highest she’s seen in years. “It’s like they’re turning the taps on really high,” says Duerr. She had to hire a new employee last month just to keep up with the demands.

Duerr’s customers, she says, don’t just have the same wine tasting experience they had on their last trip to Napa – they also don’t want something that can be arranged through a Wine Country reservation service like CellarPass.

“I need to find things that you couldn’t have done on your own,” said Duerr. “It could be something like: Let’s get into a helicopter, take a ride, land next to a vineyard, now you’re under that 500-year-old oak and it’s just you and the winemaker and a table that is already together. “

The outdoor seating area at Theorem Vineyards offers views of the vineyards.

The outdoor seating area at Theorem Vineyards offers views of the vineyards.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

For this, customers pay: Duerr recently planned a trip for a group of 10 people with a total price of around $ 80,000, and another for a set of three couples that ended up close to $ 40,000, ticket d plane included. A rental house or hotel, private chef dinners, and Duerr’s own fees, which start at $ 1,600 for two days of travel planning for up to four people, contribute to those bills. (For larger groups, it starts at $ 2,200.) These amounts also factor in the expectation that a group will spend at least $ 2,000 on wine at each winery they visit.

For winemaker Shannon O’Shaughnessy, tourists’ desire for special additions has helped fuel her new wine brand Aileron Estates, launched during the pandemic. Passionate pilot of piloting, she began to offer biplane flights in addition to tastings. For $ 550, you get about 20 minutes in the air – with some looping “aerobatics”, if you want them – in a vintage open-cockpit airplane. (It gets quite loud, O’Shaughnessy warns.) A packed lunch is available for an additional fee. Later, you head to Brasswood in St Helena, where she hosts tastings.

“Small wineries usually compete for attention and try to get people to come for tastings,” she says. “And now I have so many requests that it’s starting to feel like a full time job. “

It is possible that the current luxury tourism boom in Napa is a bubble and bursting. The famous wine industry in the region faces many hurdles: It struggles to attract millennials, and overall wine consumption is not increasing in the United States. , it could cause serious damage to the Napa Valley economy. The region’s prestige may be strong enough to withstand such a crisis, or interest in its fancy wine tours may wane.

But for now, these high-end experiences bear witness to the evolution of wine sales. Luxury wine customers are less likely to buy wine on sight than they might have been in the past, when a score of over 90 points from a trusted reviewer was enough approval . Today, these customers want to walk the vineyard, spend real time with the winemaker, and take memorable photos before they buy. The helicopter rides and etched crystal help sweeten the deal.

Still, some of the new premium offerings are old school: just expensive wine tastings.

Immortal Estate, which calls its new offer of $ 550 the 100-point experience, involves a tasting of four wines, bottles that sell for between $ 75 and $ 303. Attractiveness, owner Martin says: Two of these wines earned 100-point Wine Advocate ratings. The $ 550 fee is steep for four pours, but Martin says this is meant to signal that this is something only for die-hard wine collectors.

“To be able to tap into our library,” says Martin, “there has to be some sort of charge to separate the looky-loos from the people who are serious.”

Kenward, owner of Tor Wines, says people – including customers – even tell him he should charge more for wine. (Its most expensive wine, the $ 450 Black Magic, was recently the subject of a wave of publicity after golfer Phil Mickelson drank it from a trophy in an Instagram video.) At one point, says Kenward, a friend of his “who sells wine to black card people” convinced him to charge $ 155 for a Chardonnay, as opposed to Kenward’s typical $ 85. All 90 cases sold out in one day, surprising even Kenward, who admitted it’s always a shock when an expensive wine sells so quickly.

“A lot of people predicted that we would have the Roaring Twenties after the pandemic, and they might be right,” says Kenward. “But to be honest, that sounds a bit crazy.”

Esther Mobley is the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @Esther_mobley





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