SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Winery owners tell shocking tales of drunken tourists running through the vineyards, stealing wine, and shouting profanity. Winery owners are fermenting a plan to deal with this problem.
Copying a rule from the sport of soccer, more than half of the 95 wineries in New York state's Finger Lakes region are participating in a program to issue yellow-card warnings to tour groups whose behavior is out of bounds. Those who continue their offensive ways will receive red cards and get booted off the region's three wine tour "trails." The Safe Group Wine Tours program is being uncorked this summer.
The Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka lake trails constitute the biggest concentration of wineries east of California, according to the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association.
In June, a woman in her 40s stripped in front of a crowd of wine-tasters on a nearby observation deck at Red Newt Cellars in Hector, N.Y., near Watkins Glen. There was chance she might have been a little tipsy.
"I was so enraged," Red Newt co-owner Debra Whiting says. "We don't want one or two people, who should be patronizing a bar or home draining their keg, ruining the good time of other customers," says Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Winery Association Inc. "Nobody wants tourists driving back to Philadelphia without a lasting memory of the wine trails."
The wineries are asking the region's 180 bus and limousine tour operators to take a more active role in policing their customers because it's predominantly their riders who become inebriated and wreak havoc, Thomas says.
Tour groups often bring along wine and coolers of beer because they can legally drink on their chauffeured rides to the wineries. They also can stop at bars for more drinking along the wine trails.
Credit Mike Fitzgerald, co-owner of Finger Lakes Winery Tours in Geneva, with hatching the yellow and red soccer cards plan. He suggested it to the Seneca Lake Winery Association's executive committee last December.
"We like the idea of the wine trail becoming family friendly," says his wife, Lisa Fitzgerald. Their company already prohibits drinking on their public trolley rides
down the wine trails. Some wineries, including Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards on Seneca Lake, have taken it upon themselves to ban some limousine and bus companies that continue to let their riders get out of control. Other wineries are limiting the number of weekend tour groups or employing parking-lot patrols to weed out boisterous drunken groups.
The wineries are in many ways victims of their own success and admittedly are walking a fine line. They don't want to scare away business by squashing a good time, but they also don't want to continue letting a few spoil the wine-tasting experience for others.
Joe Gober says he hopes the new crackdown on rowdy party groups reduces offensive behavior. "At his winery," he says, "drunken patrons often frolic in a pond not far from his vineyard viewing deck, and last year a rowdy customer trashed the rest room."
"We want our groups to have fun, but we also want our regular customers to enjoy themselves, too."