|By Jeff Rowe, North County Times,
Escondido, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 21, 2010 --Wine Country is poised to begin perhaps its greatest transformation since the first vintners put grapevines in the rich soil.
At least five wineries are in various stages of planning with the county for hotels, villas, bed-and-breakfast inns and other visitor attractions.
Adding more accommodations will help draw more visitors to Temecula, some tourism experts say, and also allow the area to retain more visitor revenue. For some events, such as the annual balloon and wine festival, Temecula-area hotels are sold out and visitors must go elsewhere to get a place to stay.
More rooms "definitely helps us," said Carolyn Fittipaldi, marketing manager for the Temecula Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau. A greater number of wineries and accommodations helps the bureau attract more groups, she said.
A bureau-commissioned study in 2007 by travel market researcher Dean Runyan of Portland, Ore. concluded that the Temecula Wine Country has great tourism potential if it can master the tricky combination of supporting wine-related growth that maintains the rural character of the area and resisting residential and strip-mall-like development.
Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone favors expanding Temecula Wine Country to as many as 100 wineries, triple the current number. Stone has said more wineries and related activities will help draw more visitors to the area who will stay longer.
His office is working on revising plans for the area that would expand Wine Country's boundaries and create zoning policies that would encourage compatible uses in the area -- "making it a true destination," said Olivia Barnes, a member of Stone's staff who focuses on Wine Country. Barnes said the revised plans may be ready for the planning commission to consider as early as December.
Meantime, vintners are pressing ahead with ambitious plans for the area.
-- Ponte Family Estate Winery won county approval earlier this year for a 60-room hotel, a complement to the just-completed Vineyard Pavilion, which seats 250 people and still has room for dancing. A wedding on May 1 was the debut event in the hall.
Work is expected to begin as early as June on the hotel, said Ragan Erickson, Ponte's direct sales and marketing manager. Ponte declined to say what the hotel will cost.
Ponte's reasoning for adding a hotel parallels the thinking elsewhere in the area -- accommodations will enable them provide rooms for wedding guests. Erickson said the winery averages two weddings per weekend.
-- Mt. Palomar Winery expects to go before county supervisors in August for final approval of its plan for 42 villas (along with 18 single-family homes). Construction will begin next year, said Kris May, Mt. Palomar's director of operations. "There's not enough rooms in Wine Country," she said. "Available rooms are full on weekends."
-- Europa Village expects to come before the county planning commission in a month or two with its initial plan for a three wineries, each association with accommodations, creating a 40-acre European Village and vineyard. Plans call for a 40-room, Italian-themed boutique hotel and two 10-unit bed-and-breakfast inns, one Spanish themed and the other French.
-- Frank Aglio won county planning commission approval earlier this month for a winery and 10-room bed-and-breakfast at Vitagliano Vineyards and Winery. He already operates Lake Oak Meadows, a wedding and event site, on his property.
Phase one of construction will start by June, Aglio said, with completion of the winery expected by the end of the year. Construction of the bed-and-breakfast units will begin in early 2011, he said. It now goes to the board for consideration.
-- If it is approved, the biggest hotel in the area would be a 180-suite project planned by Jim Carter diagonally across from his South Coast Winery. Plans for the site also include 42 villas, a 5,000-seat amphitheater, a restaurant, bistro and more vineyards.
"We're working slowly and steadily with the county" on all the necessary permits, said Crystal Magon, a spokeswoman for the winery. The amphitheater will be used for concerts, theatrical productions and other events, she said. Sewage disposal is among the issues to be resolved.
South Coast is closer to full approval on a 50-room hotel that will be part of its existing complex, said Ron Goldman, Riverside County Director of Planning.
South Coast already operates 76 villas as part of its existing complex at the corner of Rancho California and Anza roads and occupancy is "very healthy," she said. She declined to provide figures, citing competitive concerns.
Consumer demand appears to support plans for more rooms.
The Inn at Churon Winery opened its 24-room hotel in 2001. It typically is full on the weekends and runs 75 percent occupancy overall, winery officials said.
Tom Brockert, Churon's general manager, said more rooms in Wine Country will "accentuate our business" by drawing more people and giving them more choices.
And, he said, "most of us (winery operators) are friends and we want everyone to be successful."
Encouraging vintners to build are room rates at existing accommodations that are far above average rates for the Temecula area.
At the Vindemia Estate Winery, owners Gail and David Bradley said they are considering adding two more rooms to the pair of bed-and-breakfast rooms they now rent for $195 and up per night. The Bradleys also operate California Dreamin', a balloon ride company. No plans submitted yet
The average room rate in February for the Temecula area, which includes hotels in the city, was $103, according to the most recent figures from Los Angeles-based PKF Consulting, which tracks the hotel industry. That's the latest month for which figures are available. In all, the Temecula area offers about 2,000 hotel rooms, but only about 100 of those are in Wine Country.
Wine Country lies just outside Temecula's city limits, but the city is "very supportive of county efforts to expand the economic vitality of the area," said Bob Johnson, assistant city manager.
Patrick Richardson, Temecula's planning director, said the city and county cross promote and strive to be complementary in promoting tourism and the growth of Wine Country.
Determining the elements of what will make Wine Country bigger and more profitable remains a challenge. Tourism spending in the area was $606 million in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available. By comparison, Sonoma County, another wine destination, recorded tourism spending of $1.34 billion last year, according to the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. The county is home to about 300 wineries.
Other challenges include resolving noise, traffic and sewage issues, said Goldman, the county planning director. An environmental impact report examining build-out plans for Wine Country is expected to completed by the end of the year, Goldman said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is making Wine County a true destination.
Carl Winston, director of the school of hospitality and tourism at San Diego State University, said Riverside County wineries are following the example of the restaurant row in San Marcos, the Gaslamp district in San Diego and Las Vegas -- that a big collection of attractions has more appeal than an lone site, no matter how jazzy.
"It's an interesting, visionary concept if they can pull it off," he said of the expansion plans in Wine Country. However, Winston questioned whether the area's attractions -- the wineries, golf courses and casinos -- are enough to make it a destination for tourists.
Achieving that takes marketing, advertising and promotion, said Jordan Richman, senior vice president of the hospitality practice group at Grubb & Ellis, a commercial real estate brokerage, in Los Angeles.
Ultimately, Temecula and Wine Country must establish that hard-to-quantify "cachet" that makes it a desirable place, Winston said.
Napa Valley has it, he said, although it has far less grape acreage than the Paso Robles area.
What creates that mysterious combination that draws visitors?
That's the great question in tourism, Richman and Winston agreed.
To see more of the North County Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.nctimes.com.
Copyright (c) 2010, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email email@example.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA. NYSE:GBE,