Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Hear the words “cellar door” and different people think different things.

If you grew up in Kansas, you may think of a “cellar door” as a place to seek safety from a twister. Just as Dorothy did in the “Wizard of Oz” when she sang, “The wind began to switch, the house to pitch.” Oh my.

If you, like J.R.R. Tolkien, love words simply for the sound they make, then the combination “cellar” and “door” may appeal more for how they fall from the lips than for what they may mean. In a 1955 essay titled “English and Welsh,” Tolkien (who obviously garnered considerably more fame for his book “The Hobbitt” than his essays on language) wrote:

“Most English-speaking people…will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful,’ especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.”

Ah, but this is a wine column and, in the world of wine, a cellar door is a place where people can go to taste and purchase wines directly from a winemaker. There was a time that buying wine literally involved taking a jug to the door of a winemaker’s cellar and filling that jug from the barrels that were stored underground. Here in the U.S., during Prohibition, that was the custom for those who wanted to buy wine for their home tables.

In many places, New Zealand and Australia for example, the quaintness and beauty of the phrase “cellar door” is still used to describe where a visitor goes to experience the hospitality of a vineyard and its proprietor. British wine tourists and writers also frequently use the term when visiting wineries throughout the world.

Here in America, we have become more familiar with the term “tasting room” to describe where we go when we visit a winery. In the late 1960s, winemakers in the Napa Valley began to become smart marketers. Pioneers like Robert Mondavi recognized the public relations value of hosting customers among the vines at their wineries and thus, the tasting room was born.

Here, they could sell not only the vibe and lifestyle of wine, but they could also expose willing consumers to many different varietals. And while they could send them home with bottles, more important, they could create with an allegiance to the brand. Tasting rooms soon were found throughout the Napa Valley, and wine tourism came to mean traveling from one winery tasting room to the next to sample wines at their source.

Wine tourism became big business around the globe, with many innovations inspired by the template created in the tasting rooms of Napa Valley. In recent years, that template has evolved to include grander tasting experiences. No longer is $10 for six sips and an embossed glass enough for many wine lovers.

This trend spawned an age of construction as wineries moved beyond mere places to make wine and became virtual visitors centers, with elaborate architecture, high-end restaurants, private tasting salons and of course gift shops selling T-shirts and hats right next to wines. All with brand identification of course.

A tourist today who is more interested in architecture than in purchasing wine from the cellar door can be thrilled by a visit to Spain’s Marquis de Riscal winery designed by Frank Gehry. A gourmand can dine above the vines at the Terrace restaurant at Canada’s Mission Hill Family Estate in the Okanagan Valley and never look at the barrels. And if modern art is more interesting than Cabernet Sauvignon then they can skip the wine all together and simply admire the stunning art collection at Donald Hess’ Hess Collection winery just up the hill from the Napa Valley.

An offshoot of this evolution of the cellar door has been the growth of the wine industry in general and wine tourism in particular. It has also led to an increase in the sophistication and expectations of wine consumers. As quaint as the concept may be, a jug brought to the cellar door is more an image of the past than the reality of today.

The cellar door concept of the 21st century revolves more around wine education and what wine tourism innovator Duckhorn Wine Company of Napa calls “elevated experiences.” Next week we’ll take a look at what Duckhorn offers visitors at their exquisite Napa properties.

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