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BUSINESS OF BLISS: IN SONOMA COUNTY, DESTINATION WEDDINGS ARE A $75-MILLION-A-YEAR INDUSTRY

Published on July 10, 2005

2005- The Press Democrat

 

BYLINE:    ERIN ALLDAY

 

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PAGE: A1

 

When Amanda Peak and David Seimer began planning their wedding six months ago, they wanted fine food and expensive wines amid lush vineyards and rolling green hills -- and they weren't going to get that in Chicago.

 

So the couple, both native Midwesterners working toward their MBAs at the University of Chicago, looked 2,000 miles west to Sonoma County.

``Our families, they're not snobby people, but they love good food and wine. And the winery setting was just a fantastic backdrop,'' said Peak, 29.

 

At their wedding last weekend, Peak and Seimer treated 60 guests to some of the best Wine Country has to offer -- a three-course meal with wines paired to each serving at Chateau Souverain, sunset in the vineyards and a cake made by the Napa chef who bakes for Oprah Winfrey.

 

All for about $65,000.

 

That price tag illustrates the economic influence of the business of bliss in Sonoma County.

 

The wedding industry generates up to $75 million a year -- more than the annual revenues of many of the county's largest businesses -- and is one of the mainstays of the $1 billion tourism and hospitality market.

 

Weddings have been a key component of Wine Country's rise in popularity with tourists over the past 10 years, with bridal magazines and tourism publications heralding the manicured vineyards and world-famous food and wine as ideal for wedding celebrations.

 

And they have become a bellwether for the tourism industry at large, said Judith Rivers-Moore, whose Santa Rosa-based JR Publications Inc. tracks Wine Country weddings and publishes regional wedding guides.

 

``Every wedding party is a tourist party,'' Rivers-Moore said.

 

Nationwide, weddings are moving beyond the traditional backyard buffet or country club supper to become the social event of a bride and groom's lifetime -- with very nontraditional price tags.

 

Winery and resort weddings cost on average about $35,000 in Sonoma County, and almost always involve couples traveling from other parts of the country. Local residents pay about $10,000 less for less extravagant settings, such as a bed and breakfast or state park.

 

While tourism and economic experts do not compile statistics on the business of weddings, local wedding planners and service businesses provided overall cost estimates.

 

The out-of-town brides and grooms are part of a growing segment of the industry known as ``destination weddings,'' where couples and their guests travel to beautiful and exotic locales for vacation-style weddings.

 

Sonoma County hosts about 200 to 400 destination weddings a year -- roughly half of them at wineries -- plus another 2,000 or so weddings for local residents. It's such a lucrative business that Napa County, which does not allow weddings at its wineries in order to limit social events on agricultural land, is considering easing those restrictions.

 

For destination brides and grooms, the expenses can climb quickly as couples face pressure to impress guests traveling thousands of miles for the wedding.

 

``These guests are spending $1,000-a-couple minimum to fly and stay in a hotel and eat out,'' said wedding planner Amy Thumhart. ``The bride and groom feel a responsibility to give them everything they can.''

 

Peak and Seimer paid $7,000 to Chateau Souverain for the venue. In addition to the costs for photographers, florists and caterers, they splurged on premium linens and bronze candelabras at every table, a port and cigar bar after dinner and buses to shuttle guests to and from the wedding.

 

``It's really stunning,'' said Robbin Montero, Peak and Seimer's wedding planner. ``They wanted to do it small so they could do everything on the high end. They wanted all the little touches.''

 

For every Wine Country wedding, first there are the basics. Wineries and other exclusive locations, such as resorts or high-end hotels, charge $5,000 to more than $10,000 just for using the site. Cakes cost $5 to $15 per guest, food $50 to $70, wine $20 to $30. There are photographers ($5,000), videographers ($3,000), wedding planners ($4,000) and florists ($2,500).

 

And then there are the extra bits of luxury: cappuccino and latte service for $400, dessert bars for $500, port and cigar bars for $200. Custom lighting -- where specialists light up trees and flowers and create dazzling light patterns on the dance floor -- can cost $500 to $5,000.

 

There's even wedding insurance: For about $200, couples can cover caterers that don't show up, cancellations due to weather and damaged photos -- pretty much everything but cold feet, according to the Insurance Information Network of California.

 

And that's just for the wedding day. Those costs don't include extra expenses before and after the wedding, such as wine-tasting tours, rehearsal dinners and overnight accommodations.

 

``The money they're spending is astronomical,'' said Montero, who charges nearly $100 an hour to help plan high-end destination weddings. ``The guests are eating out breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are trips to spas, you need hair and makeup. Just about everything you deal with everyday is making money off a wedding.''

 

Nationwide, the wedding industry generated about $125 billion in revenues in 2004. The average cost of a wedding has been steadily rising, jumping 73 percent over the last 15 years to $26,327 in 2004, according to a survey by Fairchild Bridal Group, which publishes several bridal magazines.

 

No one keeps annual statistics on Sonoma County weddings, but Montero, who has worked in the local wedding industry for 16 years, said she's seen costs triple since she started her job.

 

Destination weddings have become increasingly popular nationwide, making up 9 percent of all weddings in 2004, up from less than 3 percent in 1994, according to the Fairchild survey.

 

Sonoma County is among the more trendy destinations, competing with Las Vegas, Hawaii and other California sites such as Lake Tahoe, San Diego and the state's most popular wedding destination: Disneyland.

 

It's a booming, and sometimes controversial, business for the county.

 

Local residents have complained of the traffic and noise that come with large wedding parties. They warn that it's easy for wedding receptions to rage out of control, and that they put too many drunk drivers on the roads.

 

As a result, the county maintains strict control over wedding permits, and only about 20 wineries are allowed to hold weddings. The wineries allowed to host weddings say they prefer corporate events to social engagements -- the parties are less of a hassle, and they are able to better promote their wines.

 

``The corporate is win-win. It's financially great for us, but it also exposes us to ongoing business,'' said Anne Seeley, special events manager at Chateau St. Jean. ``The weddings have a pretty big impact on the winery. It's a great cash revenue for us, but they cause such a commotion.''

 

The winery hosts only about five weddings a year, Seeley said, in part because the site fee is so high: $12,000 for a five-hour wedding, and that doesn't include food or wine. But some couples aren't deterred: ``People fall in love with the site and have the budget to do something nice,'' Seeley said.

 

Between winery restrictions and the high cost of destination weddings, Wine Country weddings are often limited in size and duration -- the average winery wedding has about 120 guests, and it generally lasts about five hours and must be over by 10 p.m. The winery weddings also don't usually serve hard liquor or even beer.

 

Couples choose Wine Country for a variety of reasons, but usually the focus is twofold: They are food and wine enthusiasts, and they want the fantasy vineyard wedding.

 

Bride Sarah Farrell of Chicago, who was married in Sonoma County three weeks ago, said she and her now-husband, Rod Scheele, are food and wine fans who ``wanted to give guests a real experience.''

 

It was a second wedding for both of them, and this time around they rejected tradition for the most part, Farrell said. They hired Corte Madera celebrity chef Richard Visconte to cater both the rehearsal and the reception dinners. The wedding dinner included five different wines.

 

``It just means more to get married out there,'' Farrell said. ``It's more fun for us. We waited four years to get married, so we definitely wanted to give the relationship the wedding it deserves.''

 

Peak and her husband felt similarly drawn to Wine Country. They had first visited the area about five years ago, just after they started dating. ``And ever since then we've had this romantic attachment to Napa and Sonoma,'' Peak said.

 

Peak and Seimer had been planning to pay for at least part of their wedding, but between graduating from business school and starting new careers -- the couple moved to Santa Monica a month ago -- money was tight. So the couple's parents are footing the bill.

 

``Both our families are based in the Midwest, and there was a lot of trepidation about getting married in California. But they came around,'' Peak said. ``It shocked me how many people were so excited to spend the weekend with us.''

 

And, she added with a laugh, ``It put a lot of pressure on me to put on a good show.''

 

You can reach Staff Writer Erin Allday at 521-5494 or eallday@pressdemocrat.com.

Photo: 4 by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat

1. A cigar and port bar at the $65,000 Peak-Seimer wedding at Chateau Souverain.

2. Petaluma wedding photographer Dennis Urbiztondo shoots a portrait of Amanda Peak and David Seimer at Chateau Souverain in Geyserville.

3. Newlyweds Amanda Peak and David Seimer walk along the vineyards at Chateau Souverain in Geyserville. The couple visited the area five years ago and soon felt a "romantic attachment to Napa and Sonoma."

4. Mauria Finley and Greg Yap of San Francisco listen to a reading by friends during their wedding at Trentadue Winery in Geyserville.

Infobox:

 

Average destination wedding

 

Average cost: $35,000

 

National average: $26,000

 

Winery site fees: $5,000 to $12,000

 

Catering: $6,000 to $8,500

 

Wine, other alcohol: $2,400 to $3,000

 

Wedding planner: $5,000

 

Custom lighting: $1,000 to $5,000

 

Cappuccino/latte bar: $400

Keywords: MARRIAGE TOURISM COST

 

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