As We Wine On Down The Road

By Malcolm Fleschner

Trends in the incentives business can be difficult to predict. The latest, inspired by a film about a wine-fueled road trip between two old friends – one a womanizing jerk and the other a bitter misanthrope – may be the most surprising yet. But with box office grosses of $109 million the film, Sideways, was the sleeper hit of 2004, and has been almost solely responsible for turning wine culture into the hippest indulgence since cigars.

According to a recent article in Incentive Magazine, the Santa Barbara wine country where much of Sideways takes place has seen a dramatic spike in corporate incentive program bookings, while wine-of-the-month clubs and barware have become hot sellers nationwide in the incentive marketplace.

"We’re finding a lot of people are using wine as impactful awards and gifts," Jim Bower, chief marketing officer for Elite Corporate Gifts and Rewards, tells Incentive. "Wine is a fascinating world unto its own with the different grapes, blends and time periods. It’s a world a lot of people don’t understand, but once they start literally getting a taste for it…it captivates them."

One way to capitalize on the wine craze is with an incentive travel package to one of the nation’s premier grape-growing regions. Though the Santa Barbara area has seen the most sizable post-Sideways boom, California’s Napa Valley remains popular for wine tasting tours as well. "These activities are absolutely in concert with what’s going on," says Dave Peer, senior director of merchandise and fulfillment for the Carlson Marketing Group. "It’s a popular option post-9/11, because it’s a nice secure location that has some exotic aspects, yet it’s safe."

But maybe your salespeople don’t want to go all the way to Northern California to do their imbibing. If so, you might consider adding a wine tasting to an existing incentive or sales event. According to Peer, wine tastings have become particularly popular on incentive cruises, allowing seafaring participants to relax while parsing the subtle differences among Merlots, Burgundies, Bordeaux and Cabernets. It’s a particularly fun activity for spouses to enjoy together, he adds.

James Feldman, president of the Chicago-based performance improvement agency James Feldman Associates, suggests creating incentive programs that incorporate a series of wine-related gifts. A wine bottle opener might be the first, followed by a glass with a message inside such as "Soon it will be filled with your success." Complementary food items like truffles follow, and then finally the bottle arrives. This approach, he suggests, will have more impact than simply providing a one-time reward.

For the true Sideways fans, however, nothing but the real deal will do. For them tours are available that take participants through Miles’ and Jack’s path of travails, from the Andrew Murray Vineyards and the Hitching Post restaurant to the Sanford Winery and the Days Inn (Windmill) & Sports Bar. Just be prepared for crowds. The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau originally ordered only 10,000 official Sideways maps, but has since rushed to meet demand by printing up more than 100,000 extras.

But if you go, keep in mind these inspired words from Jack, worthy of Yoda himself: "Do not drink too much. Do you hear me? I don’t want you passing out or going to the dark side. No going to the dark side!"