When Ralph and Lahni DeAmicis started writing their first book on Napa’s wine industry, they relied almost entirely on the knowledge of local tour guides to gather their research.
“We weren’t making much progress on the book, because we would go to these wineries and they didn’t know much about the buildings,” said Ralph. “But then, we bumped into the tour guides, and they knew all about the buildings, who had the great locations … they knew everything.”
This spurred Ralph to get himself a part-time job as a wine tour driver, where he was able to soak up all the information he could about the region, the architecture and the culture while carting visitors through the valley. Nowadays, it seems the DeAmicis duo know just about everything about Napa and its wine, which they credit to years of experience with their company, Amicis Tours.
But as tourism and hospitality lurch toward normalcy after the pandemic, the tour guide industry — as knowledgeable as it is — is facing change after change and hit after hit.
“We are lucky because we are authors, professional speakers and consultants in the off-season,” said Lahni. “That was always part of our model, so it was easy for us to slide into more marketing and writing with our publishing company, but most drivers do not have that side hustle.”
The DeAmicis’ said that half of their drivers left the industry and did not come back after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted; a theme they say many companies are currently dealing with.
“We didn’t even know if we would come back,” she said.
A perfect storm of ride-share services, a global pandemic, wildfire risk, and shifts in clientele have resulted in rising prices and limited availability for tastings, thus complicating bookings for tour companies. The nature of making an itinerary for clients has been completely upended, according to Lahni, and tasting budgets are among the first things discussed when booking a new group.
“Something new after COVID is that all wineries are by appointment only, so there is no dropping here and dropping there, and people are kind of shocked when we tell them that we can only fit in three wineries,” said Lahni. “But because of their limited space, because of the restrictions they have … They are booking hour, hour and a half long appointments, and it is just a different world.”
But after COVID-19, not many sectors were left untouched and familiar. In 2019, travel spending in California hit a whopping $1.8 billion before falling below $850 million last year, according to Visit California. Of these losses, hospitality and tourism continue to lag in terms of recovery compared to other sectors.
“The other thing is that appointment-only is only part of the story,” said Lahni. “The tasting fees have gone through the roof.”
“It used to be that you could find a $25 tasting, or they would comp with a purchase … In Napa now, it seems like the average tasting is $50.”
Both Amicis Tours and other professionals in the industry say this is pushing more and more tourists to Sonoma Valley for their wine experiences, including the previous mayor of Sonoma and Napa Valley Tour Guide Guild member Doug McKesson. McKesson said that in cutting down on the number of visitors, wineries are spending more time with clients, and have raised tasting fees to make a profit regardless of additional sales that may or may not be made.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said McKesson. “People will go to fewer places, but they still want to come … and it’s amazing how many people that are booking things over here are limited by the way they can't get tastings.”
Regardless of these difficulties, McKesson is optimistic about the resilience of the tour guide industry and believes that the niche-finding nature of the wine and alcohol world will bring some balance to the region. He notes that visitors still chase after the “full experience,” and breweries, distilleries and specialty wines are breaking through in the market.
“I think there is a bigger base and these companies and people are, instead of going to three wineries, they go to a distillery or a brewery and a winery, and cannabis isn’t far behind,” said McKesson. “And I think when we get into 2022, it's going to be full tilt again.”
Another change to the tour guide industry has to do with a pandemic-induced shift in clientele, which was already leaning heavily toward Bay Area visitors.
“60% of our visitors come from the Bay Area, and 40% come from other places. But during COVID, 99% of our visitors were coming from there,” said Ralph. “So what they do is they come and do one winery, and then they go downtown and go to lunch, which was open, and everyone shifted to them, and if the prices are going to go up, you are also going to pour more wine.”
One ounce pours quickly became closer to two ounces, and the seated nature of pandemic-era tastings results in more glasses on a table at any given time.
“They pivoted, so all of the tastings got more expensive and the experiences got longer,” said Ralph. “During COVID, you would go to the wineries and they would be empty, but they wouldn’t want to let you go, they would be there for two hours … but now, they are booked back to back to back.”
The scene may be changing in terms of the number of wineries visitors may hit on any given day, but both the DeAmicis’s and McKesson are positive that the visitors will keep on coming and looking for a full, wine country experience.
“When you really look at it, there seems to be enough money and enough interest,” said McKesson. “California is unique, but where we live above the bridge is extremely unique and is constantly evolving.”
For example, when Ralph first started driving for wine tours, tastings were done in the tank room, with boards atop barrels for a table. There was no existing, comprehensive tour guide book for the region — hence the reason they began authoring and publishing some themselves — and there was nothing glamorous about the surrounding environment.
“But the wine itself is not the main reason why people come to wine country … it is because they want to learn about the area, the winemaking,” said Ralph. “And if you want an education about the wine industry, if you want to have a feel for the area and the people, that really comes from a seasoned wine guide.”