Folks travel from all around the world to sample Northern California wine. They’re often flying into San Francisco International Airport on their way to Napa and other areas, and their first taste of the Golden State can be one of gridlock. By the time the tourists have endured a typical Bay Area traffic snarl, a high-octane glass or two of Lodi zinfandel in the hotel room sure hits the spot.
One local entrepreneur is trying to make Northern California wine travel especially smooth, like the finish on a 2002 Corison cabernet sauvignon. And he’s pitching Sacramento International Airport as the gateway to NorCal wine, whether plans call for sipping in Sonoma, the high-altitude vineyards of the Sierra foothills, or other wine country that awaits within an hour or so from the capital city.
Robin Little is the creator of Free Flights in Sacramento, an online travel site that highlights Sacramento as the ideal way to access wine country. In this case, “flights” refers to a lineup of wines, not air travel. But the site includes an engine for booking a sojourn to eight wine regions, with Sacramento International Airport as the default for arrivals and departures. Custom itineraries can also be arranged, with food options that highlight Sacramento’s local flavors.
“We’re putting Sacramento on the map (as) the No. 1 airport destination to go wine tasting in the country,” Little said. “When they land in our airport they have nearly 600 wineries in eight wine regions (within 60 miles or so). And they’ll have farm-to-fork restaurants when they get here.”
Little, 51, also owns the Union Vacations travel agency and previously branched into food-related projects. In 2008, he launched Bikes and Bites, a bike rental service that outfitted its bicycles with ads from such local restaurants as Zocalo and 33rd Street Bistro.
But he knows there’s a tremendous opportunity with wine. According to the latest figures from Visit Napa Valley, the official tourism marketing arm of Napa’s wine country, nearly 3 million people travel to Napa annually. More than 13,000 visit Napa on an average day.
“We should be able to get some of that,” Little said. “We have a great opportunity to put people in hotel beds, in rental cars, in wine tasting rooms that they’ve never seen before. Our goal is to drive the (local) economy.”
But re-routing people from San Francisco and other Bay Area airports to Sacramento won’t be easy. SFO is the default airport for most online travel booking engines when travelers are headed to wine country. And despite increasing national acclaim for its food and adult beverages, Sacramento doesn’t have the same marquee value as San Francisco as a tourist destination. On the plus side, Sacramento’s traffic flow from the airport is much less of a headache.
Little believes the Sacramento area’s under-the-radar status can be played as a strength, especially with younger tourists. Instead of taking the same old trip down the backed-up Highway 29 in Napa, there’s plenty to be discovered among the windy roads of Amador and El Dorado counties, or a trek to the sleepy town of Clarksburg, which is home to some of the best chenin blanc outside the Loire in France.
He thinks that his message can find traction with those who want something more than a routine wine vacation, which includes a younger generation of independent thinkers.
“I think millennials want to try new things,” said Little. “They want to come to a place like Sacramento and not be the followers.”
Little is now hustling to spread the word about Free Flights in Sacramento and land strategic partnerships. He has met with regional vintner associations and winery owners to work out specials for travelers who have booked through his service. He has also met with marketing officials at the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau to develop synergy, though no official partnership has been formed.
The site for Free Flights in Sacramento also needs some final tweaks before it is fully developed, but the travel booking engine is live. He is hoping to toast a new rush of wine tourists and sell them on Sacramento.
“We’re working with everyone to make this a destination city,” said Little. “There’s things to do here. It’s affordable. We just need to be recognized as a place to land.”
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.