TORONTO — Twenty years ago, St. Hubertus and Oak Bay Estate Winery in Kelowna, B.C., was a small family operation where the odd vino lover would drop by for a sip, swirl and picnic on its 32 hectares of picturesque land.
“Think of it like going to Tuscany and wandering in the hillsides and seeing a winery door open,” says owner Andy Gebert.
“You go in and have a tasting and buy some wine, versus bus tours or limos and screaming kids.”
But as the region became a wine hot spot, those very bus tours and limousines started rolling through, along with large groups celebrating pending nuptials, a.k.a. bachelor/bachelorette or stag/stagette parties.
Gebert was happy to accommodate such festivities but a few of them brought a rowdy vibe that clashed with the subdued setting, and some of the group numbers were too large for their small operation.
He ended up having to limit groups to eight and tell tour companies not to bring by large crowds unexpectedly — and not encourage wild behaviour amongst bachelor/bachelorettes with party bags.
“Stagettes, for example, have a tendency to have more people that are intoxicated and for us, we have to work with the liquor laws and it became an issue,” Gerbert says.
“It’s basically the night club scene meeting a farm dinner — it’s like two totally different experiences.”
Gebert’s business is among many small Canadian wineries grappling with ways to accommodate large bachelor/bachelorette parties, which they say are visiting in increasing numbers as more tour companies target them. Wineries say in most cases, it’s bachelorette groups that visit rather than bachelor parties.
Some small wineries say while they enjoy having such groups, they can sometimes be too big or show up unexpectedly and clog parking lots with their buses and limos. On rare occasions, they can also be too tipsy and loud.
“When you have large groups coming in unannounced, it takes up a lot of space, it takes up a lot of time and it takes up a lot of energy,” says Erin MacInnis, operations manager Closson Chase Winery in Prince Edward County, Ont.
“Sometimes it impacts other people’s experience — if there’s just a couple or a couple of couples doing a tour and they’re really interested in wine, and then you have people that are just out to get drunk.”
Such large groups who arrive unexpectedly also use up a lot of glassware and occupy the time of salespeople “when they’re probably not interested in buying something anyway,” MacInnis adds.
MacInnis says it’s been a buzzy topic amongst members of the Prince Edward County Wine Growers Association, which has seen substantial growth in visits to the southern Ontario region in the last few years.
Her small winery has considered making reservations mandatory for groups over six, having a host at the door on Saturdays, and putting large groups in a separate building or gazebo.
“When they’re planned and we know about them, we find that they’re fine,” MacInnis says. “When you have a group of 12 people that show up unannounced and they’re loud and sometimes drunk, chaos can ensue.”
For some bigger wineries, however, it’s not an issue.
Andrew Peller Ltd. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., says it sees a lot of bachelorette groups visit its properties, which include Peller Estates, Trius Winery, Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery.
“Wine country, girls weekend — they kind of go hand-in-hand,” says Chantal Smith, marketing manager at Andrew Peller Ltd.
While the company prefers groups make reservations, they have the space and staff to accommodate unexpected arrivals. Its wineries also target such groups through various party packages, like the Girls’ Weekend Itinerary.
“It’s exciting because we’re seeing people experience wine country for the first time,” Smith says.
Winery Guys Tours in Niagara Falls, Ont., works with specific wineries to bring groups through the region on its 14-passenger bus.
“Like any group, you have some who are there just exclusively to party,” says Zach Spadafora, a Winery Guys Tours driver and tour guide who helps manage the company.
“But then you do have those groups who are really nice and they hit a nice medium between having fun with each other and still being respectful of those around them.”
Spadafora says his company always makes reservations with wineries ahead of time or, in the case of last-minute groups, calls ahead. They also remind bachelorette parties to be respectful before entering a property, and the wineries don’t impose rules on them.
“Except they don’t like when the bachelorettes bring in phallic-inspired inflatables,” Spadafora says. “They just say ‘that’s not allowed’ and I run it back to the van for them while they’re inside doing the tasting.”
All the wineries say their staff are certified in responsible beverage service programs and trained in how to handle inebriated visitors.
Spadafora says his company abides by the law and doesn’t allow drinking on their vehicle.
But MacInnis says some wineries in her region suspect some tour groups are allowing drinking during transport, and it’s created animosity.
Gebert says he also took issue with tour companies in his region for encouraging a wild party atmosphere in their vehicles before bringing in groups.
“The wineries struggled big time with controlling the crowds,” Gebert says.
“We cannot become a Disneyland of mass tourism. We’re not set up for it.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press