“I have 12 businesses and this is the most complex I have ever done,” Stéphane Tillement says. “If I didn’t drink too much champagne I would have never done it.” Tillement owns French travel agencies specializing in wine travel and was inspired to create Wine Paths after clients repeatedly asked him for recommendations when planning wine vacations outside of France. He has lofty ambitions of becoming the go-to online resource for luxury international wine travel.
If the first year is any indication, they’re off to a promising start. Wine Paths’ website launched in April 2017 with France, Spain, Portugal and South Africa and has since expanded to 11 countries working with 22 local travel agencies and nearly 300 restaurants, wineries and hotels. So far, Bordeaux and Tuscany have been the most popular destinations among a predominantly American clientele. Partners pay an annual fee to be part of Wine Paths and the company takes a commission from bookings made directly with the local travel agencies.
“It’s extremely difficult at my small level to create a global brand,” Tillement says. “I’m not Bernaud Arnault. To open 11 countries with people who speak different languages and convince them to come on board before we even had a website, when I’m totally jetlagged…it’s been a daily challenge.”
Last December, Wine Paths launched Napa Valley as their first US destination, offering a portfolio of high-end experiences at hospitality partners like Meadowood, Promontory, Frank Family Vineyards and Antica – the Antinoris’ only non-Italian estate. Napa may be very well known in the United States but Tillement, who is based in Bordeaux, acknowledges that it’s still lesser known to European wine lovers.
“We are the only high-end wine tourism platform that is truly international,” he says. The impressive collection of partners include 284 wineries, restaurants, hotels and local travel agents, many of which are not present on any other wine tourism platform, like Bollinger and Château Mouton Rothschild. “Our brand becomes the reliable option for the customer like the Michelin Guide for restaurants, even if we are a long way from their notoriety.”
Globally, partner wineries include Hennessy, Champagne Taittinger, Castello Banfi and Bodega Trapiche. Clients have the option of booking suggested tours directly incorporating preferred partner wineries, restaurants and hotels or working with a local travel expert to tailor a dream holiday. I was impressed with their ability to get me a weekend reservation at The French Laundry with less than a month’s notice – it’s easily the hardest reservation to get in all of Napa Valley and not even a Wine Paths partner. Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurant recently completed a three-year, $10-million renovation expanding the kitchen, private dining room and outdoor courtyard with a sleek, modern design by Copenhagen-based Snøhetta.
My first night in Napa, I stayed at the charming North Block Hotel just down the road from The French Laundry, allowing me to walk to my much anticipated lunch reservation in stilettos after taking a relaxing bath with North Block’s own line of geranium, jasmine and cedar-scented bath amenities. The sunny balcony overlooking the stone courtyard was the perfect place to contemplate whether I would order the chef’s tasting menu or vegetable tasting; both menus change daily. With the Wine Paths connection, I received extra gifts from the kitchen including a hen egg custard baked in its shell and topped with Périgord truffle ragout. Naturally, the eggs are from the restaurant’s own chickens and in my overexcitement to scoop every last drop out, I accidentally shattered the delicate shell.
From Yountville I moved to Meadowood in St. Helena, and my driver dropped off my bags while I was tasting wine so they were already waiting for me in my room upon check-in. It’s these thoughtful details that make a world of a difference. He had hummus with vegetable crudité and pita chips waiting for me in the car at the airport (far better than what United was serving in-flight) and even went the extra mile to get me a roll of duct tape for my damaged suitcase. As a Napa local and certified sommelier with experience working at Napa’s best restaurants including The French Laundry and La Toque, his insights and recommendations were invaluable. La Toque’s DIY-tasting menu format is unique, allowing you to pick and choose courses to create the perfect four- or five-course meal. The wine list is excellent although we also brought a bottle of Alejandro Bulgheroni 2014 cabernet sauvignon to pair with aged duck breast, veal chop and New York strip loin with cheddar pearl tapioca.
Finding the right partners in each new destination has been the secret to Wine Paths rapid global expansion. In Napa Valley, the local travel expert is Shelle Wolfe of Wine + Dine. Her destination management company specializes in customized luxury leisure wine country tours and corporate events, and working with Wine Paths has given her a chance to connect with new European clientele. “Stéphane has great vision, character and integrity,” she says. “He’s already so well-established in France and his clients are curious, well-traveled and interested in the best.” With decades of experience in Napa and Sonoma, Wolfe can open doors for people that would otherwise be tightly shut, and recommend experiences based on interests and preferences that travelers didn’t even know existed. “A lot of people think that because they have money they can do anything, but that’s not how it works here,” she explains. “It’s all about relationships.”
Beyond wine, Wolfe has a passion for art, architecture and culinary experiences. When she heard I adore chocolate, she arranged a chocolate making class with the owners of Woodhouse Chocolate where I created my own bars (dark chocolate with pistachios, fleur de sel and cacao nibs) and made a molded chocolate dog. The following day I made ricotta cheese with renowned local cheesemaker Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection – her triple-cream blend of cow’s and goat’s milk cheese is served at The French Laundry. These interactive workshops were a fun interlude between wine tastings.
The winery experiences that Wine Paths selects go beyond a typical tasting too. For example, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery offers a veggie and vino pairing along with innovative aromatherapy and ampelography classes. Smaller wineries like Krupp Brothers and Fantesca Estate & Winery are normally available by appointment only, and they go above and beyond for Wine Paths to create intimate food and wine experiences with private chefs.
You’ll feel like you’re being welcomed into somebody’s home, especially when Will Harlan himself greets you at Promontory, Napa’s hottest winery. The younger Harlan is running the show at the family’s newest label, showing off the sweeping vineyard views, state of the art fermentation hall and dramatically echoing cellars before offering a tantalizing barrel sample, then letting the vineyard’s unique metamorphic soils speak for themselves in two different vintages.
“Wine Paths came highly recommended by our friend Michel Rolland,” Harlan says. Rolland is a shareholder in Wine Paths and his global network has been key to the company’s early success. “There aren’t any other really high-end wine experiences that do this on an international level in a way that resonates with us.”
Meadowood is Wine Paths’ preferred lodging partner in Napa Valley and has always felt like home to me. Nowhere else in California wine country can match it for genuine warmth in service. I’ve been lucky enough to stay at Meadowood several times in the past two years and the treeline suites are sublime. The pool and fitness center are currently undergoing a major renovation and a temporary fitness tent is located on the tennis courts.
Although it’s tempting to pack each day full of activities and tastings, allow yourself enough time to truly unwind at Meadowood. The Forbes triple five-star resort is one of just three in California and 13 properties worldwide to achieve this honor, so enjoy all the luxurious amenities to the fullest. The multitude of hiking trails, golf course and croquet lawn are all great options for a leisurely day on property, but you’ll find me at the spa countering my copious alcohol consumption with a Glycelene facial. The Southern California organic and vegan skincare line even created a Meadowood Collection of products, featuring native ingredients like bay laurel and California poppy.
“Napa was where wine tourism was born and it’s how they sell their wine,” Tillement says. “Wine tourism is such a strong concept here and opening Napa was a way to be credible.” He plans to launch Sonoma in June and a spirits division for high-end whiskey tours by the end of the year.
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