Missouri’s Evolving Wine Passport Program Boosts Winery Visits
According to some well-known and unfair national stereotypes, Americans lack basic geographical knowledge, eat too much and hold few passports.
Regardless of the validity of these stereotypes, I do know that certain types of passports — wine passports — are popular across the Midwest. As a bartender at Belvoir Winery near Kansas City, I often feel like a customs official while stamping customers’ wine passports on a regular basis.
As most people know, wine passports are either paper booklets that the winery stamps, or a digital version via a free App that can be used on a smartphone. The more wineries you visit the more free prizes and experiences you get. Passport programs now exist in different guises in Midwest states including Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Minnesota.
See related story: Winery Passport Programs Working in Minnesota, Ontario and Kentucky
State wine associations credit these passports with encouraging thousands of additional winery visits. Danene Beedle, marketing director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, launched a passport program in February 2011.
This year, the Missouri passport program is enjoying a second run, in a modified form. One key aim of the passports, said Beedle, is to encourage additional visits to the state’s wineries. Another objective is to get people out to visit the newer wineries. There are currently 167 wineries in Missouri with federal winery licenses, according to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), a rise of 6% on last year.
According to Beedle, 12,000 people registered with the 18 month long 2011-12 passport program. This compares well to the Texas passport program, which Missouri used as a model for its program. According to figures from the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Foundation (TWGG), about 15,000 people participated in the Texas Department of Agriculture’s (TGA) 2011 wine passport program.
Considering the population difference between Texas (about 26 million) and Missouri (about 6 million), Missouri Wine’s passport program did very well. Beedle said one added benefit of the Missouri program is the number of out-of-state visitors who participated in the passport program.
However, in some respects, the program was too successful. ‘Consumers loved it,” said Beedle. ‘It was much like a treasure hunt for a lot of people to find all the wineries that they could and it was a great way to do a lot of day trips.”
The passport program was so successful that Missouri Wine ran out of budgeted funds to purchase and mail out all the prizes, like corkscrews, bar towels and aprons. Some wineries also felt there were too many prizes.
So Missouri Wine made this year’s passport promotions more experience based, rather than gift based. Now it takes 10 winery visits, rather than 5 in last year’s program, to qualify for the first reward — and it’s a certificate of achievement rather than a gift.
The next reward comes after thirty visits: a private VIP tour and wine tasting for 8 people at a participating winery. After 60 visits, the prize is a ‘Wine and Food Experience” for 10 people at a participating winery.
And once the passport holders visit 100 wineries, they are invited to the Century Club Dinner, a red carpet affair with wine makers and industry professionals. Beedle says it is very difficult to judge how successful this year’s has been so far, compared to last year’s .
The two programs are quite different and it’s still relatively early to judge the 2013 passport which started in January and runs until December. So far a respectable 3,000 plus people have registered.
Rather than prizes causing budget concerns, one issue for the 2013 program in the early months of this year was the App. Jesse Page, a customer at Belvoir Winery, said that the App this year is ‘a fraction of what it was” in terms of the quality of the layout and maps.
Beedle said they changed this year’s App completely and went with a different company. It’s also had four major software updates since January due to bugs that are now sorted out. ‘The App has had difficulties in the past but we encourage people to go out and make sure they have the most current version because it is working much more smoothly,” said Beedle.
‘And one of the cool things about the App this year is that you can actually take tasting notes,” she added. ‘We’re trying to be progressive; a lot of folks enjoy using their smartphone but then we have a segment of people who want paper. So we’re doing our best to offer something for both groups.” Beedle said the passport program is still evolving and any changes to next year’s passport will probably be announced by November.