By Paul Omundson
For Special Publications
It was her 33rd birthday and Susan Germyn wanted to do something special. She had heard a lot about the emerging excellence of Lane County vineyards and wineries. So the Eugene resident got five girlfriends together to check out the local scene.
A logistics nightmare? You'd think so with six women and more than 30 wineries, large and small, from which to choose scattered throughout the county.
But Germyn, on the advice of a friend, booked her birthday tour through Sunshine Limo Service, a local company that specializes in wine tours.
"It was great," Germyn says. "We're not wine experts and we're not familiar with all that's out there. Sunshine came up with a tailor-made 'backstage' tour for us to places they thought we'd enjoy the most. They made all the arrangements. At each stop we were greeted by an expert from the winery and escorted to our own private tastings. We had personal tours of the facilities. We loved it."
Denny Hagen, Germyn’s chauffeur, started the group off with the larger wineries and worked his way down to smaller ones. First up was King Estate, then it was off to Iris Hill, with lunch on the terrace overlooking the vineyard. Next were Silvan Ridge, Sweet Cheeks and finally Noble Estates, where owner and winemaker Mark Jurasevich treated the women to a walk through his vineyards and insights on the intricate process of crafting wine.
Germyn says the best part was no waiting at any of the stops, even though it was a busy weekend. While other visitors waited in line for tastings, her entourage was whisked away upon arrival at each destination for an intimate, upclose experience.
"We’ve developed a good rapport with the wineries," Hagen says. "That allows us to arrange a fun, hassle-free trip for our passengers."
Germyn and her friends say they are hooked. They’re looking ahead to birthdays and anniversaries with their husbands to book more limo wine tours.
Sharing a passion for wine
Sunshine Limo is an affair of the heart for owners Mike and Cheryl Gregory, local caterers for 26 years who were the first to market limo tours specific to Lane County wineries six years ago.
"My wife and I have been wine lovers all of our lives," Mike Gregory says. "We love Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris and it gives us great pleasure to provide a safe, fun way to experience some of the best wines and wineries in the world right here in our backyard."
Gregory admits he got into wine tours on a whim. While attending an industrial auction in Seattle for his catering business, opportunity suddenly knocked and he found himself with the winning bid for a used limo.
The couple originally intended the limo for their own use to visit wineries. Soon, they found themselves sharing the limo experience with friends, who lauded the idea. Gregory, with his entrepreneurial hat on, took it to the next level and purchased a whole fleet of limos.
Today, wine tours are at the top of his list of popular limo packages, and Sunshine Limo showcases the theme in a big way.
For starters, limo passengers are given a "fun wine facts" sheet that the Gregorys compiled, along with a trivia game and an array of printed materials from Wine Spectator’s online "Wine Spectator School." Soon, they will add a murder/mystery game as an optional part of the wine tour package and an art-in-thevineyard component that includes stops at artists’ studios near wineries.
At Sunshine the couple’s daughter, Merryn Gregory, handles reservations and scheduling for the fleet of six limos.
"About 90 percent of our customers are like Germyn and her girlfriends," Merryn explains. "They’re local folks who have heard the buzz on how great our wineries are and are curious to see for themselves and want to have an enjoyable afternoon of it."
But a growing number of clients are real estate companies, construction firms and other professional groups that want to treat valued employees and prospective customers to a fun, unique time.
Another small but growing group of limo customers are avid out-of-state wine connoisseurs who travel worldwide seeking mostly small, boutique wineries. "They come here lured by the Willamette Valley’s reputation for world-class pinot noir and pinot gris," Merryn says.
The company can accommodate a range of tour types based on what a customer wants to do; a trip might include participating in bottling and corking, barrel tastings, tours of vineyards, and personal sessions with viticulturists and
winemakers. “Most of the local wineries are happy to accommodate any of these requests,” Merryn says.
Enthusiasm from wineries
It’s no surprise that the wineries welcome the growing limo traffic. Their referrals make up the bulk of Sunshine’s business.
Jurasevich at Noble Estate says he gets about 25 percent of his tasting room business from limo tours. Like most other Sunshine destinations, he waives the customary tasting fee for limo passengers. “They call ahead and let me know they’re coming, which is extremely important given our small space. Their clientele is usually not a bar crowd, but a wine crowd truly interested in our wines.”
At Silvan Ridge, tasting room manager Angela Bennett also works with limo tour companies to work out tour details in advance.
“Sunshine will often cater lunches at our winery and we’ll open up our dining room for free so they can have a nice, private lunch and wine-tasting experience,” she says.
Limo traffic also plays an increasing role at big wineries such as King Estate, where, according to hospitality manager Autumn Brown, about 10 percent of its visitors use that means of transportation.
“We know their customers are usually people intensely interested in our wines and we love to show them what we’re all about and make their visit here special,” she says.
A safe alternative
Steve Thomson, King Estate’s executive vice president, predicts that limousines will be the transportation of choice for a growing number of visitors, especially in the winter months when the southern Willamette Valley is beautiful but more challenging for people driving their own cars.
“Limo tours are a very important part of the total winery experience,” says Thomson. “You can’t beat it for ease and safety.”
Thomson recently used Jeff Alexander, a protégé of Sunshine Limo founder Mike Gregory, to pick up 10 national food and beverage experts who attended the annual Oregon Pinot Camp in McMinnville and escort them to Lane County to be part of the winery’s “King for a Day.” Alexander drove them down in his new, customized bus that augments his own fleet of wine tour limos. Alexander, who got his start at Sunshine and picks up its overflow, is the only other local service that intensely markets wine tours, although there are numerous other limo services that will do such tours on request.
Robert Kyne aptly summed up the appeal: “When you take a limo tour you absolutely have to worry about nothing, except enjoying the people you are with and the wineries,” he says.
The Vancouver businessman regularly uses Sunshine to take builders and developers to Oregon wineries, and adds that “when you have that connection to the vineyard and winery it makes the wine drinking experience all the more better.”
Paul Omundson is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene. He may be reached by e-mail at
Common questions answered
• A gratuity, usually 10-20 percent, typically is included in the package price. An additional tip is not expected, but if you feel your chauffeur provided extraordinary service, it’s OK to offer an extra $10 to $20 tip. • Feel free to make special requests and ask questions of chauffeurs. They are accustomed to itinerary changes and typically are knowledgeable about local wineries and wines.
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