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Through the grapevine: Chilean vineyards hope tours will entice visitors to spend on wine back home.

The devil peers from behind the bars protecting a wine cellar 30 kilometers south of Santiago, to the surprise and delight of a group of tourists, whose cameras snap away at the mythical inhabitant of Chile's Concha y Toro vineyard.

Legend has it the devil himself haunts the cellar, a story the winery's founder Don Melchor cooked up to keep his employees away from his finer selections. Of course the real devil is far away from this vineyard, but the man in a costume will hopefully charm the tourists enough to buy a bottle or two of wine at the vineyard's shop.

Up until a few years ago, wine-country tours such as this one were pretty much nonexistent in Chile. But today; tour offerings include jaunts by bus, helicopter, train, vintage motorcycles and even scuba diving for wine bottles on the bottom of the ocean, as vineyards and tour companies seek to entice tourists--and their money--to Chile's central region wine valleys.

In the past, vineyard tours were reserved largely for wine experts. Export success came from having tasting and reception facilities that allowed global trade professionals to sample wines and familiarize themselves with a vineyard. The experts, it appears, liked vintages from Chile. The country boosted wine exports 20% to US$835 million in 2004, according to the Chilean wine trade association Vinas de Chile.

No official statistics exist as to how much tourists spend while visiting the vineyards, but Santiago business daily estimates that vineyard tourism was a $5 million industry in 2004, with 50,000 visitors sipping their way through the wine country. Some would say that figure is too low. Concha y Toro, Chile's largest wine producer, says it receives that many visitors alone and generates about $1 million a year from tourism. Close to 70% of that comes from purchases made in its wine shops, like wine and gifts such as fancy bottle-openers and glasses.

Yet the industry feels there is room for more growth and businesses are lining up to help them. For those companies, it seems the future for wine tourism is ros6. In September, Santiago's Cafe Racer, a motorcycle museum, will begin tours in the Colchagua and Casablanca wine valleys on vintage British and Italian motorcycles.

"Relaxed-pace tours for four to seven people with fine dining at various vineyards Hill give motorcycle enthusiasts a unique way to see the region," says tour developer Tom Bascunan. "There is a public that wants to do this and it is a unique way to do a wine tour." Vineyards open to the motorcycle tour include Bisquertt, Viu Manent, Casa Lapostolle, Laura Hartwig, Montes and El Crucero. A two-day tour costs $1,500 and includes food, lodging, support vehicles that carry fuel, tools for repairs and trailers for towing, riding lessons and insurance.

Wine tourism is a big deal in Santa Cruz, a city nestled in the vineyard-laden Colchagua Valley; 130 kilometers south of Santiago. "Colchagua did not have a hotel until 2000 and now we have four It has changed the vision of what the valley is and is now one of the most important businesses," says Tomas Wilkins, founder of Rutas de Vino, an eight-year-old tour company that shuffles 15,000 people a year through 14 vineyards in the area. The vineyards have done their part to attract tourists, says Wilkins. "Ten years ago the vineyards did not even have a bathroom for visitors," he says. "Now there are wine shops, tasting rooms and restaurants."

The government has spearheaded the development of new roads to improve infrastructure, which Hill reduce the time it takes to reach wine valleys farther south, boosting tourism and regional economies. "The most potential is for the Casablanca route in a valley between Santiago and Valparaiso, since it can receive visitors from cruise ships, and the Maipo Alto valley because it is close to Santiago," says Ricardo Poblete, executive director of Corporacion Chilena del Vino, a non-profit trade association. Valparaiso is a port city 90 minutes away by car from the capital.

While more tourists are fine, visitors really don't figure into Chilean vineyards' business models, say some industry leaders. Tours may be growing, but the facilities exist largely to welcome journalists and buyers. "If you have done a good job in your vineyard, tourists Hill go back to their countries and ask for your product in the supermarket," says Anibal Ariztia, president of Vinas de Chile.

Unlike visitors to California's famed wine region Napa Valley, Chile's international wine tourists only buy a couple of bottles, not cases, because they fly home and often have no room to carry on or check in so much wine on the plane. Few Chilean tourists come to the vineyards, so it's hard to rely on them for domestic word-of-mouth advertising. Chileans drink 16 liters per capita of wine, according to Vinas de Chile figures. Of that total, 14 liters are sold as homegrown, cheap white wine known as cartonnay, local slang for boxed wine.

Vinas del Chile wants to change that. Wine tours are a key tool to steer Chileans towards better-quality wines. Concha y Toro created a tourism unit to handle the rising number of visitors arriving at its estate near Santiago. The vineyard took in 50,000 visitors in 2004, 28% more than in 2003. The company expects to welcome 65,000 people in 2005 due to the opening of a new city subway line nearby.

Light show. With 2004 sales of $338 million, the $1 million that Concha y Toro generates from tourism is paltry, but the value tours add to the brand is priceless. "The first goal of the tour business is to strengthen the Casillero del Diablo brand and get consumers close to Concha y Toro," says Ignacio Izcue, deputy manager for tourism at Concha y Toro. "We have developed a $6, 50-minute tour that gives more value for money [than other tours] and includes a special light show about the legend of the Casillero del Diablo."

Visitors meanwhile give Concha y Toro reasonably good grades. "The tour was routine and obviously running the tours is a business as we were not allowed to go for a walk in the pretty park afterwards," says Rikke Andersen, a tourist from Denmark. "It's a very professional company and they promote their Trio brand, but all in all it leaves one feeling it is a very commercial affair."

Others were quick to criticize some vineyards for keeping a tight cork on their wine bottles. "I went to Casas del Bosque and wasn't impressed. It was overpriced and uninteresting," says Patrick Nixon, a journalist in Santiago. "They charged $6 for the tour and tastings of two varietals. If you wanted to taste a reserve you had to pay an extra $3 and there was no free wine glass like at Concha y Toro."
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Title Annotation:TOURISM
Comment:Through the grapevine: Chilean vineyards hope tours will entice visitors to spend on wine back home.(TOURISM)
Author:Harris, Paul
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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