Mar 09, 2021

Lluis Tolosa: Rioja Will Continue to Develop Premium Wine Tourism

Lluis Tolosa, Spain's foremost expert on developing wine tourism, explains the evolution of wine tourism in Rioja as well as how and why Rioja wineries will benefit from upgrading the profile of their visits to 'Premium'.

Lluis Tolosa is a wine tourism consultant, author of 25 books on wine and wine tourism and professor at several wine tourism schools.  His book Marketing del Enoturismo. 12 errores habituales, 12 propuestas alternativas (Wine Tourism Marketing. 12 Frequent Mistakes, 12 Alternative Proposals) was selected as the Best Wine Book of the Year (Gourmand World Awards 2018).


The Evolution of Wine Tourism in Rioja

Bilbao-Rioja (BR): Tell us how wine tourism has evolved as far as activities are concerned.  Where are we headed?

Lluis Tolosa (LT):  The evolution of wine tourism has been different depending on the country, the region and even the winery.  If I had to summarize the general evolution in Spain, I would say that there have been six clearly defined stages.  In the first stage the basic product was created – the winery visit followed by a wine tasting.  At first we debated about whether or not to charge for the visit and today, even the wineries who are models started with free visits.  Then came the debate about 5 € or 10 €, and lately some wineries even charge 20 € and 30 €.

During the second phase we realized that showing stainless steel tanks, barrel ageing cellars and bottling lines in winery after winery was repetitive.  We thought that the wine tourist shouldn’t be a mere spectator; that they should be participants.  And that’s when wine tourism activities were created: electric bicycles, Segways, quads, horses, carriages and other activities like musical attractions, poetry contests, letting people participate in the harvest, pruning classes, picnics in the vineyard, weddings and so on.

The third stage was experiential wine tourism.  We didn’t sell tickets to visit the wineries and we didn’t sell activities.  It was time to sell experiences – which created quite a bit of confusion by the way.  Many wineries said ‘Live the experience – Visit our Winery’, and ‘Live the Experience – Learn How Wine is Made’.  So in many cases we did the typical Latino thing of adopting fashionable terms and doing what we were doing before.

The fourth stage was just before the pandemic.  After a huge creative boom, wineries opted for calm, for a professional attitude, market segmentation and the challenge of selling wine.  I think that the most important thing about this stage is that wineries realized that they were a part of the general tourist trade but with very different points of view.

The fifth stage is during lockdown.  Wineries are closed to visits and we are facing the slow, erratic process of reopening, at a time of maximum uncertainty, searching for a new normality that is slow in coming.  Many wineries and wine routes are taking advantage to prepare for the sixth stage – mature wine tourism in Spain.

We have three major challenges:  increasing the total number of wine tourists, increasing the average spend, and increasing the average length of stay. To reach those goals we have to improve the quality of our offerings, segment by type of visitor and market and face the challenge of wine sales. We have to strengthen the triangle Wineries – Gastronomy – Tourism, three world-renowned sectors in the world but still not very well synchronized in Spain.  And lastly we have to keep improving communication in the wine sector and the wine tourism sector.


Making a Premium Visit

BR: What makes a visit ‘premium’? 

LLT:  The main thing that distinguishes ‘Premium’ is exclusivity.  The visit can be the same and the wines the same but the visit and the tasting is done solely and exclusively for the customer.  The second factor is personalization – adapting the visit to the tastes and preferences of the customer.  The third factor is authenticity.  The wineries in Rioja have started to segment by types of visitor and by wine tourism products, because ‘Premium’ is highly specialized.

BR:  What’s the Spanish and international profile of the premium wine tourist?

First of all we have to rethink the usual concept of the profile of the wine tourist.  The sociodemographic profile we always insist on defining is largely irrelevant.  Age groups, sex or educational level…these data sets aren’t really useful.  In fact they introduce a high degree of distorsion.  What are women like, young people, restaurant-goers?  All the answers are false because there are all kinds of women, young people and restaurant-goers.  The same thing is true for wine tourists.  The profile of the wine tourist doesn’t exist. When I read a study about this profile I’m surprised because I either don’t belong in any category or I belong in all of them.  What we have in the world is people, and labels for people don’t usually work.  I think that different life cycles and ways of life are more useful.  I think that the main studies should focus on product design, price segmentation, positioning, differentiation and promotional strategies.

Who knows about wine tourists, their needs, their expectations and their buying habits?  It’s the tourist middleman – the travel agency.  The wine trade has to assume that the tourism business uses middlemen.  And wine tourism is tourism.


The Future of Wine Tourism in Rioja

BR: Where is Rioja headed?

LLT:  There are multiple tendencies. This makes sense in a region with over 600 wineries, with more than 300 of them offering wine tourism experiences.  This huge diversity favors segmentation and stratification of offerings. There are proposals at all price levels and for all kinds of people.  This trend toward segmentation is what over fifty Rioja wineries have created with their Rioja Premium Wine Tourism program, in addition to their proposals of MICE  (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) wine tourism and family wine tourism.

BR: Tell us about some of the best examples of this.

LT: Everything you can imagine.  You could take a month-long sabbatical in Rioja and after 30 days you would have only experienced a small part of the huge number of offerings.  In the Barrio de la Estación (Haro Railway Station District) you have the largest concentration of  100+ year old wineries in the world, with properties like Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Muga and others. CVNE offers a magnificent Imperial visit focused on the Imperial brand that was first made in 1920 and the first Spanish wine to be named #1 in the world by the Wine Spectator.  Gómez Cruzado is an example of how personalized service can create a magical moment.

At the great icon Marqués de Riscal you can book a private tour, a Michelin-starred restaurant and world-class lodging at the Frank Gehry-designed hotel.  The Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, is without a doubt the best wine museum in the world.  If you’re interested in the roots of native Riojan grape varieties, you shouldn’t miss the humility and vast knowledge of Juan Carlos Sancha.  To understand the true meaning of ‘premium’, the top gastronomy experience at Marqués de Murrieta is pure history,  a pure self-imposed standard of excellence and pure elegance.

If you want to delve into some of Rioja’s most emblematic people, meeting Fernando Remírez de Ganuza is a privilege. To explore the cellars under the medieval village of Laguardia, you can’t miss Casa Primicia.  And so on until the end of the month.

BR:  What are the next steps?  What do we have to do to offer a premium vision for the future?

LT:  For Rioja wines, to develop the new quality pyramid.  For wine tourism, to continue to develop the premium product.  Offerings should be improved winery by winery.  More wineries have to get involved. We have to include gastronomy to complete the process, as well as lodging, transportation and other premium services such as guides, translators, incoming travel agencies and other premium services.  Then we have to solidify relationships with the dozen or so premium travel agencies to whom we’ve presented Premium from Rioja, because working with agencies is how you reach the premium market.  These agencies will help us create wine tourism packages and segment markets to optimize sales.

Photo Credit:  Marc Díez

Translation:  Tom Perry