Sonoma Entrepreneurs Are Jumping Aboard Small Specialized Tours, From Wine To Food To Beer

By Bill Swindell
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 3 years ago, entrepreneur Tammy Gass launched “Savor Healdsburg Food Tours” after thinking that Sonoma visitors would appreciate a food walking tour that would introduce them to restaurants and kitchens they might not otherwise encounter. Her gut instinct was correct! Her business is now up to about 1,000 customers annually and she has hired three part-time employees. Way to go Tammy!

The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Visitors to Sonoma County find a world rich in food and drink, with abundant ways to experience it — tasting rooms, restaurants, breweries, package tours.

How to decide where to go? Some rely on the recommendations of friends. Others will take the advice of a concierge if they stay at an upscale hotel. Then there are the ambitious ones who do time-consuming research to craft a detailed itinerary.

Increasingly, though, visitors want a more intimate tour, a customized entrée, according to those in Sonoma County’s $1.6 billion hospitality business. In response, entrepreneurs are starting small businesses that offer bespoke tours and insider experiences they can’t get at tasting rooms and restaurants.

There are wine tours in the area that cater to small groups. They range in cost from as little as $100 per person to more than $1,000 a day for a couple’s exclusive outing in a black Chevrolet Suburban.

And that personal touch has spread into other sectors.

Tammy Gass, for example, took a chance three years ago that Healdsburg visitors would appreciate a food walking tour that would introduce them to restaurants and kitchens they might not otherwise encounter. The bet has paid off; her Savor Healdsburg Food Tours is now up to about 1,000 customers annually and she has hired three part-time employees.

“This area is becoming more food-centric. People are exploring and reading about the amazing food and restaurants,” Gass said.

The area also has seen some customized tours in other areas as well. One tour, for instance, involves cycling to various brewpubs.

“We’re really standing on a precipice in a number of fields,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “It just keeps unfolding.”

For example, Stone noted that if marijuana becomes legalized in November, it would open up an opportunity for cannabis tourism. It’s already a vibrant business in now-legal cities such as Denver, where one can get a cannabis-friendly hotel room starting at $159 a night. It would likely take off in Sonoma County, situated just south of the legendary Emerald Triangle, the largest and most well-known cannabis growing region in the United States.

“You may have some who will want some combination of cannabis as part of their tour experience,” Stone said.

The strong local economy has given entrepreneurs the chance to take a leap without making a much costlier and time-consuming commitment. Gass, who previously worked in fundraising and marketing, decided to start her business after taking food walking tours in other cities. A Healdsburg resident for six years, Gass has been able to travel the world frequently because her husband is a commercial airline pilot.

She noted that Healdsburg was a perfect place for food tours, given its burgeoning dining scene along with many restaurants in a relatively small space. But “they don’t explore off the two blocks of the plaza,” she said of many local visitors.

Gass reached out to local restaurants to see if they would be interested in participating, essentially by hosting a small group for about 20 to 30 minutes, serving a small dish and possibly having an owner speak to the visitors. For example, at Cafe Lucia, owner Lucia Azevedo Fincher talks about her family’s Portuguese roots and how they have been able to adapt that cuisine to local ingredients.

Other stops on the 1.3-mile walk include places such as Healdsburg Shed, Bravas Bar De Tapas and Taste of Tea, a Japanese tea house that opened last year. She notes that some of these businesses benefit because they have a retail component. One of her tour participants was a Coca-Cola employee as well as a tea connoisseur and bought hundreds of dollars of tea from Taste of Tea, Gass said.

She sprinkles in history of the town as well as insider knowledge that visitors may not know, such as the Thursday night dinners at the Dry Creek General Store, or Sunday night food trucks and music at the Medlock Ames tasting room in the Alexander Valley.

Like others, Gass has been able to grow her business primarily through word of mouth as well as websites such as TripAdvisor, where she has a five-star rating.

“The number and variety of restaurants we visited was perfect over the course of three hours, and everything we ate and drank was absolutely delicious,” noted one TripAdvisor reviewer. Since Gass has started, another operator has started a foodie walking tour in the town of Sonoma, she said.

Gass has kept prices on her tours reasonable, as she said that it helps spread goodwill and can lead to bookings for more lucrative customized tours and corporate outings. Her tours start at $89 per person and include all food and drink, which is enough for lunch for most customers.

In the beer sector, there are now three specialized tour companies.

When James Holt and Robert Watkins started their North Bay Brewery Tours in 2010, they were in their early 20s and uncertain what the future held in the aftermath of the recession. They started out with capital from family members and haven’t taken any bank loans so far.

“Because of the economy, nobody would lend,” Holt said.

But that rocky economic time also represented an opportunity because they were able to buy two used passenger vans at a lien sale to start their business. They also got a great deal on office space in Sonoma Mountain Village given a glut in the commercial market, as well as place to park buses.

As craft beer has grown to be almost 30 breweries in the county, so has North Bay Brewery Tours. It now has eight buses and 23 people who are employed in some capacity, Holt said. The vehicles each have a “kegerator” and the tours have knowledgeable guides, such as distillers, brewers and others in the industry, in addition to a driver.

After trial and error, they found that three is the optimum number of brewery visits for a tour; more than that and it becomes more of a party than a fun learning experience. Typically, the first visit is at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, where North Bay has a standing reservation even on days when Lagunitas’ beer garden is closed. The company was able to establish an early relationship with Lagunitas, which gives it an advantage in the marketplace. North Bay also will add other stops at smaller places such as Old Redwood Brewing Co. in Windsor.

“It’s like the exact opposite” of Lagunitas, Watkins said of Old Redwood. “It’s just a step above a home brewer.”

The majority of their business is private groups, though they offer public bookings on the weekend for $99 per person, which includes lunch.

“We make the public tour very, very reasonable because the biggest driver of sales is that public tour,” Holt said. “Then they can do a bachelor party or a birthday party (in the future).” It also has provided private tours for tech companies.

The company has not rested on its success and has recently introduced $45 round trips to AT&T Park for Giants home games on Friday nights, when the buses would typically not be in use.

“It’s been going really well,” Watkins said. “We have three or four buses going to the Giants game.”

Even with activity in the other sectors, bespoke wine tours still represent much of the local market. And just like the industry, wine consumers are seeking a premium experience. For example, John Burdick’s wine tours cater to those who want an experience they can’t get anywhere else — and it has a price tag to match.

His “sommelier’s experience” tour runs $850 a couple in addition to an $85-an-hour transportation charge. Visitors will meet with top winemakers at locations that aren’t typically accessible to the public. It also includes a catered lunch prepared by Catherine Venturini, formerly of Olive & Vine Restaurant in Glen Ellen. He conducts a pre-interview with each client so he can tailor a tour to their specific liking, such as a certain varietal or region.

“It’s bridging the gap from the neophyte to the collector,” said Burdick of his customers. He is a sommelier, consultant and has also owned restaurants.

“My tour isn’t for everybody. You are going to get up close and personal.”

Burdick’s tours also have benefited some small wineries visited by his customers. For instance, Squire Fridell of GlenLyon Vineyards and Winery in Glen Ellen said he welcomes the small groups that Burdick and a few other small operators bring. They represent a significant amount of his outreach. He has no tasting room and sells his bottles through his 1,000-member wine club, with a few selections via his website.

He brings the tour visitors into his home for the tasting and shows them around the 26 acres of land located in the Sonoma Valley, where he makes sparkling rosé and still wines such as chardonnay and a syrah port.

“It far exceeds anything they would get by driving up to a tasting room,” said Fridell, who will call all his visitors by their first name on their personalized tour.

He said he doesn’t make any hard sell during the two-hour visits and never mentions his wine club. But when they ask and find out where they can buy it, Fridell said about 99.9 percent ask: “Where’s the pen?”

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