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June 23, 2013

GRAPE SENSE: Anti-social media wineries fail to attract good company

MONTPELLIER, France – Visiting French wine country is getting easier by the day, but it’s still no Napa. Some French winemakers are starting to talk about tourism, but few have embraced it.

It took an American family, and specifically their young son, to kick start tourism through social media in Southern France’s Languedoc wine region. The Languedoc is the largest wine-producing region in the world but has never been a tourism destination.

Joe, Liz and Ryan O’Connell packed up and moved from Louisiana to a small village just outside Carcassonne, in the heart of southern France. While Joe, a former house builder, worked on building his home and winery, Ryan started blogging, tweeting and doing videos about Languedoc wine. At the time, no one else was doing it.

So far only a few others have joined in.

“It’s fortunate for us, but I’d bet most other wineries are five to 10 years away,” said Joe O’Connell, of O’Vineyards. “We go to meetings and try to help them and they look at us and say ‘pfffff!’

“I don’t know how to help them any more.”

O’Connell said it has paid off in a big way. Popular travel sites like TripAdvisor have helped. O’Vineyards is the No. 1-rated attraction on TripAdvisor in the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

“You go to Montpellier and Google winery visits, we’re the first ones to come up,” O’Connell said. “You go to Toulouse and Google winery visits, we’re the first ones to come up.”

And despite the continual parade of tour buses to O’Connell’s home and winery, other wineries are still slow to buy in. O’Connell tells other winemakers, “anything is interesting to people who want to drink wine.”

Languedoc wines were long the boxed wines, bulk wines or plonk – as the French would say. In the last 15-20 years, the region has emerged as a leader in producing high-quality value wines.

It doesn’t take a Twitter account and Facebook, though, to achieve success, but it doesn’t hurt. Virgile Joly has emerged in recent years as the face of the organic wine movement and Languedoc wines. He does a personalized visit for those who find his small village of Saint Saturnin de Lucian. His white Grenache Blanc has received critical raves.

Joly is a man of rare passion who has a growing business, fan base and interest in luring tourists. He uses social media extensively and adds a personal touch with his charm.

Chateau  Le Bouis and Chateau Carasses, near Narbonne, get it. The seven Gerard Bertrand properties across the Languedoc all have elaborate tasting rooms and know how to welcome visitors. Bertrand’s Chateau L’Hospitalet, also near Narbonne, has a restaurant and artisan shops for visitors.

Montpellier makes for a great home base to visit Southern France and its wineries. Wine tourism is still taking root but there are plenty of wineries ready to welcome tourists. The experience is often more personalized at the smaller operations. Visitors are much more likely to talk with the winemaker or a spouse than any stop on the U.S. West Coast. Most are charging tasting feels now, which range 10-15 Euro, but that usually includes some bread and cheese or other light appetizers. Montpellier is far less expensive than many other French cities. And Languedoc wines offer tremendous value.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes about value wine every other week for 22 Midwestern newspapers.

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