Wine & Ale trail Rainy day @ the beach
Rainy day at the beach.
MILTON -- Between 600 and 800 people walk through the doors of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery each week to gaze at the vats of beer, taste the product -- and, perhaps, walk away with a new appreciation for the craft.
State tourism officials now are aiming to spread the wealth of visitors to other small breweries and wineries in Delaware with a new marketing tool. The Wine & Ale Trail, which launched last week on a shoestring budget, connects 12 sites from Wilmington to Delmar where visitors can tour and taste.
The move aims to capitalize on the increasing popularity of craft brews and local vineyards. While business for the nation's dominant beer companies has been down, craft breweries are seeing about 10 percent growth each year, according to the Brewers Association, a craft brew trade group.
It's a bright spot in the national recession, said Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head, noting that the average American now lives within 10 miles of a brewery.
"We've sort of leveled the playing field," he said. "Americans are choosing to spend locally, and they're choosing to buy what's in their community."
Some of Delaware's beverage producers are part of local-yet-regional companies, such as Iron Hill in New Castle County and Dogfish Head, which has a brewery in Milton and restaurant in Rehoboth Beach. But others are newer, smaller startups, such as 16 Mile Brewing Company in Georgetown and Fenwick Wine Cellars in Fenwick Island, both of which opened within the last year.
"We believe in this industry -- it's got huge potential," said Alan Levin, the state's economic development chief. "You guys can help each other to make it even better than what it is today."
Similar marketing efforts have worked well in other states. In Maryland, there are four designated wine trails, with a fifth launching soon, said Regina Reilly, marketing coordinator for the state wine trade group.
"Each one's a little bit different," she said, tailored to the region's strengths.
Like the beer industry, the wine business is similarly dominated by a few large producers. About 45 percent of American wineries are small operations, with less than 5,000 gallons a year, but that makes up less than a half-percent of total domestic production, according to WineAmerica, a national trade association. The 40 wineries that produce more than 1.2 million gallons annually hold 84 percent of the market.
Among the smaller operations is Fenwick Wine Cellars, which opened in January. Manager Katie Connolly said the brand-new winery has had a substantial influx of visitors, even during the off-season. "Many of the tourists who come into town have been really excited that there's something different they can do," she said.
It's not set up for tours yet -- the grapevines just finished going into the ground across the road last week -- but Connolly hopes the Wine & Ale Trail will lead customers through the doors for daily tastings.
"Delaware really needs to continue to make its mark on the map," Connolly said. "For being such a small state, having all the breweries and wineries that we have is pretty amazing."
Calagione said the Delaware trail puts the state ahead of the curve nationally. He said while there are successful programs elsewhere in the country, particularly in Maine and Washington state, Delaware's small size makes a full tour possible in a few days -- something impossible in larger states.
"This is a premier program coming out of the gates," he said.
And devotees of craft brews are extremely loyal, said Kevin Davies, co-owner of the Iron Hill brewpubs in New Castle County and Pennsylvania.
"When these folks travel, they always like to visit local breweries and brewpubs," he said. "We're pretty excited to be part of [the trail]."
Delaware's initiative gathered speed rapidly, starting from a meeting with breweries and wineries in March to the official unveiling last week. The effort is small to start with, costing the state tourism office just $1,000, said Linda Parkowski, state tourism director. That covers the cost of a website and promotional coasters.
Starting in the fall, officials will begin an ad campaign in food and wine magazines targeted at out-of-state visitors, and the trail will also become part of the state's pitch to group tour operators and meeting and convention bids.
Parkowski hopes it will become a regular attraction, as people spend three or four days touring all 12 sites and experiencing the different brews and beverages on tap or from the bottle. It also piggybacks on a southern Delaware initiative to focus on culinary tourism along the coast.
Calagione said the potential visitors are discerning fans -- they know what they want and what they like.
"It's about quality, not quantity, when visiting wineries and breweries," he said.
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