by Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor

When I look back on 2009, I can say with some certainty that the Niagara wine region as a whole grew up. Why do I only now say this? Well, because 2009 was an indication of what the future holds for the industry and specifically, how wineries will have to operate their tasting rooms, make their wines and market themselves.

Two trends that will affect how wineries will operate this year were the influx of tourists that found the wineries during their visit to Niagara Falls and the popularity of locals taking limo and bus tours.

The first trend was anticipated, but maybe not so soon in the region's development. It seemed like a sure bet that the tourist draw of Niagara Falls would eventually spill over to the wineries and in 2009 it happened. The buying power of these people on vacation seemed limitless and I was always taken aback by how many would buy the most expensive wines without so much as flinching.

If adding a $35 pinot noir or a $50 ice wine to a wine list seemed like overkill, think again. If people like it, they bought it, especially in the case of unique wines and limited-production stuff.

The rise in popularity of the wine trail as a “party” driven by limo and bus rentals has, of course, been a double-edged sword. Telling apart potential buyers from potential pukers has become a weekly adventure.

From bachelorettes to 40th birthday parties, we’ve seen some disruptive bunches and balancing the attention between them and the other customers hasn’t been easy. On the other hand these groups have helped to expand the potential for sales, but tasting rooms have to be able to improvise and manage them – especially on Saturdays and definitely during promo weekends.

That being said, 2009 will go down as the year that brought volume to the wine trail. Wineries that could handle large groups and whose wine lists were diverse enough to satisfy all tastes certainly benefited from the popularity of “wine drinking” tours. The smaller wineries that weren’t exactly enthused about what seemed like busloads of sweet-wine lovers had a tougher time keeping what they saw as their customer base happy.

So how do you appeal to the couples or smaller groups of wine buyers that want the intimate experience of talking to winemakers or winery owners while appeasing the crowds at the same time? That will be the biggest challenge in 2010.

I know, it’s hard to believe I’m telling you that the biggest roadblock facing the trail is too many customers. So here are a few other topics that I hope wineries will address this year:

The winery as a destination. I hope the coming year will see more entertainment and activities at individual wineries. Whether it’s a small band or a solo artist, wineries should embrace the idea of bringing customers to their businesses and not depend on the “trail” to bring people out. We have some of the most spectacular rural landscapes as background and I think picnicking amongst the scenery will be a draw for the locals that are looking to get out in the fresh country air.

Coordination of media submissions. One or two good reviews may help sell a specific wine, but several respectable reviews can get us coverage as a region and may persuade those that are on the fence to finally make that trip to the area. As far as I know there has been no rhyme or reason to when or how samples are sent to magazines, blogs or other media outlets.

Experimentation in the winery. This subject may be a bit too close for comfort since I poke around in everyone’s winemaking business here, but I’ve been lucky to be involved in doing bleed-offs, using different yeasts, cold-soaking and various other techniques. Our cool climate reds need all the attention we can give them in the winery and perfecting how to get the most out of specific vineyards is crucial in delivering the extracted reds most people expect.

Cropping and sorting. For all the same reasons I listed above, this will be crucial to maximizing the quality of our red wines. Anything that can be done to maintain healthy grapes while pushing along the ripening process in the vineyard will be rewarded by people paying more for each bottle in the tasting room. Additionally, sorting grapes in the vineyard AND winery should become regular practice.

Branding and marketing. Social media is here to stay and I don’t know why every winery isn’t using Twitter or Facebook at this point. As far as branding the region, the area is basically already benefits from the brand of Niagara Falls, which hopefully still conjures up feelings of wonder, romance and power. We can’t be afraid to use the word terroir here either. Why? Because we have it. It’s the limestone stupid!

The next few months will be quiet up here and should give wineries a chance to take a breath and look at what worked and what didn’t in 2009. There’s plenty of momentum going into the new year and we should see at least two more wineries opening their doors pretty soon. With even more estate- and AVA-grown wines coming, there is good reason to think that 2010 will bring more attention to our region and even busier tasting rooms. We’ll drink to that!