Wineries rock Passport Weekend

David Johnson performs on the patio Saturday at Fortino Winery during Passport Weekend.

The Wineries of Santa Clara Valley kicked off 2013’s wine season with their “Passport Weekend” shindig, and local vintners say they couldn’t be happier with this major open house event that helps market their brand, boosts wine club memberships and allows patrons to meet the faces behind the labels.

If WSCV President Sheldon Haynie and the other 21 vintners that make up the association have their way, the economic benefits of their biannual wine-fest will seep beyond the vine-covered valleys and hills and trickle into local businesses.

“It was a smashing success,” said Haynie, co-owner of Lightheart Cellars in San Martin. “We did very well.”

In glorious weather Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of visitors poured into to enjoy the latest creations from the cognoscenti at local wineries.

Numbers put together by Wine Club Director Dawn Jackson of Fortino Winery show that Spring Passport sold around 1,650 passports. That’s 150 more than last year, she said.

That number doesn’t take into account the regular winery visitors that were also milling around at the weekend, added Jackson.

Passports were priced this year at $30 a ticket. Profits are used for future marketing campaigns and the funding of a $1,000 scholarship for a graduating high school senior planning to major in agriculture – preferably with an emphasis on viticulture or enology.

But wine sipping and letting down of hair is only part of what Passport Weekend is about.

People may come to the wineries and buy a bottle or membership to a wine club, Haynie explained, but the real trick is getting visitors to look past the end of the vines and see other places to spend their money.

“We want to make it a community day and we can make it family friendly by encompassing more of what the city has to offer,” said Haynie.

Spring 2013 Passport Weekend-ers certainly got bang for their buck. For $30, people got 12 hours of wine tasting with four one-ounce pours at each of the 22 participating wineries.

For one fledgling winery, everything that happened over the weekend was a first.

Sunlit Oaks Winery, located at 7602 Sunlit Oaks Court on the east side of Gilroy near Crews Road, bravely decided to throw open its doors for the first time.

“It was very exciting, like learning to swim by jumping into the Pacific,” laughed owner John Grogan.

The winery, by his estimate, supplied enough one-ounce tasters to fill 60 wine bottles.

None of that would have been possible, Grogan explained, without the “camaraderie” shared between Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister wineries.

As Grogan began to clean up and recover from the onslaught, he had one concern.

“I won’t be able to remember all the names of the people I met.”

One name he’s likely to remember and encounter again is that of Jane Howard. In her dual roles as executive director of the Gilroy Welcome Center and WSCV marketing committee member, Howard worked tirelessly to get word of Passport Weekend spread far and wide. An advertisement in Sunset Magazine, which focuses on the best travel destinations in the West – got an extra 350,000 pairs of eyes looking toward South and San Benito counties.

“We were deluged with phone calls from Wednesday on,” she explained.

The inquiries were coming in from everywhere, explained Howard, but she was surprised at the high number of local first-timers that bought tickets for the event. The Gilroy Welcome Center, one of the many venues selling Passport tickets, sold a total of 135 by Friday.

Dana Arvig, vice president of advertising for Mainstreet Media Group, said the WSCV placed advertisements for a couple of weeks leading up to the event in Mainstreet’s three publications – Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Freelance and Morgan Hill Times – in print and online.

“They promoted it well,” she said.

According to Howard, the push to get community members supporting the wineries snowballed after the advertisements ran.

“We wanted local and we got a lot of new local,” laughed Howard.

Marketing Director Greg Richtarek of Guglielmo Winery in Morgan Hill was responsible for the WSCV marketing campaign to pull in visitors from farther afield. Facebook and Twitter promotions were deployed to complement a radio and print marketing strategy.

Wherever people are coming from, Haynie is adamant about what needs to happen.

“We want people to go and visit our merchants in the town,” he said.

The impact of Passport patrons was immediately noticed at local businesses.

The West Side Grill on Santa Teresa Boulevard in Gilroy offered free corkage to people with wine from any Santa Clara Valley Winery. Even though he didn’t speak to any Passport customers directly, owner John Holder noticed the general buzz and chatter increase Saturday night.

“We saw an extra 10 percent,” according to Holder, who said that translates to about 20 extra diners. Free corkage was also a factor at Morgan Hill’s Rosy’s at the Beach, which had another ace up its sleeve: Michael Mann of Mann Cellars, which is located at 7475 Crews Road in Gilroy, was pouring out samples, and because of Passport’s ramped-up media campaign this year, people knew where to find him.

“It was very active,” laughed owner Rosy Bergen. Having Mann inside the restaurant bumped the foot traffic through the doors by around 150 people per day, she calculated.

“Many were staying on to order lunch,” she observed.

Haynie’s summation of why the South Santa Clara Valley deserves its place in the pantheon of wine growing regions is simple.

“This is a place that makes great wine, is more relaxed than other areas and is far easier to get to,” he smiled, perhaps making a playfully competitive jab at Napa Valley.

All of the hard work in preparing for the weekend paid off, according to Vic Vanni, co-owner of Solis Winery on Hecker Pass, which saw almost 1,000 people over the course of two days. There were even limos coming through his parking lot on Saturday.

“We saw lots of new people and everyone was really happy,” he beamed.