Wine tasting fees and their rapid increase in recent years have received a lot of attention in the press lately. The age of free and low-cost tastings has clearly passed, today’s average fee is in the range of what used to be charged for premium and ultra-premium flights. The higher price of wine tasting is not simply a result of inflation and increased costs of production, though such factors certainly play a part. It appears that the real driver is the cost of delivering the experience.
Consumers love to feel good about what they buy, whether it’s a new car or a relaxing weekend in wine country. Even if the product is marginal, market research tells us many customers will return over and over if the experience that delivers the product is unique and enjoyable. Wineries have sought to up the quality of their experiences and recovering the cost of doing so is being passed on to consumers in several ways – including tasting fees, wine prices, and sales of other high margin items.
My earliest memories of on-site tastings go back to small wineries filled with charm. The tasting bar was sometimes little more than empty wine barrels tipped on end with a wood plank laid across them and located in a former equipment shed or tucked in a corner among steel fermentation tanks. It was common for cellar rats and assistant wine makers to do the pouring. Owners frequently stopped by to welcome visitors and share stories. Tasting rooms were points of sale, where visitors could taste before they bought. Most tastings were free or under $10, a nominal charge to remind us wineries were not just a social gathering spot. When I started visiting Napa Valley in the 1990’s, it was believed that 70% of local wineries made 70% of their revenue in their tasting rooms. Smaller wineries might lack the production volume needed to support wider distribution, so local sales were vital to survival.
In the past ten years, many family wineries and smaller operations have been gobbled up by corporations, foreign and domestic. With the change of ownership, tasting rooms appear to have transitioned from points of sale to profit centers. The distinction between those two types of operations is important. One is designed to sell wine, the other is designed to sell a brand.
Today’s typical tasting room is a space specially designed and built for that purpose. Much has been spent on creative architecture that starts the tasting experience with friendly come on in curb appeal. Where we once bought only tasting flights and bottles of wine, offerings may now include wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chocolates, and shelves laden with logo-emblazoned coasters, corkscrews, crystal, hats, polos, sweaters, jackets, and tchotchkes of every type. The costs of sustaining these larger facilities have to be met.
Staff have also changed a bit. Whether full or part time, the guy or gal behind the bar is more often a qualified wine educator. They tend to have more formal training, both specific to the wines they are pouring plus WSET or sommelier credentials and college degrees in related fields. They may not have worked in production (other than during harvest), but their overall knowledge and ability to share it is impressive.
The increase in wine tasting fees has been an inevitable outcome of the evolution of tasting room operations. If the value received is worth the price, we can expect wine tourism to continue to thrive. Tasting rooms will be packed in-season again next year and the wine industry should survive periodic peaks and valleys in consumption.
Since moving to the 707 over a decade ago, the bulk of my personal wine buying has been a result of visiting nearby tasting rooms in Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties. The wines I hold longer and reserve for special occasions tend to be those with stories behind them, memories of warm summer afternoons sipping in the shade on a tasting room patio. In the end, it truly is the experience.