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Friday, September 08, 2006

Making Millions a Sip at a Time

If you've watched the movie Sideways you've been exposed to the wide spectrum of winery tasting rooms. In my experience they can range from something akin to a bar in a friend's garage to elegantly appointed rooms with dynamic views of the surrounding vineyards. Big or small, for many wineries the tasting room is the life's blood of the operation.

A story in today's San Francisco Chronicle by W. Blake Gray did an excellent job of driving home the point. The article quoted a study by MKF Research of St. Helena, Calif., that found wineries in California actually outdrew the state's five Major League Baseball teams in 2003. MFK's figures showed that the Padres, Angles, Dodgers, Giants and A's attracted 13.7 million fans during the 2003 season. That same year, 14.8 million people visited California wineries. That is quite a number when you consider the research also showed the average tasting room visitor spent $39 per stop -- that's $577.2 million in revenue flying around tasting rooms both folksy and ostentatious. MFK noted visits to tasting rooms around the state got even more expensive the following year, averaging $42.54.

Most wineries around the country charge a nominal fee for small pours of usually 3-4 wines. Sometimes you get to keep a souvenir glass that is included in the fee. The goal is to get you to sample and then buy some of the wine that you enjoyed. My wife, Sandy, have filled wine racks over the years visiting wineries in several states and even Ontario. Having a bottle or two from a visit to a tasting room is a great way to recall a sunny day on a dark winter's evening.

Some of the wineries in California have gone far beyond charging a few dollars for the right to sample their wines. Some have a basic sampling area for one fee, then a "reserve" area where they charge as much as $45 per head to try higher priced wines. Others have begun mixing wine and food tastings together and charging a fee for the program. They still hope you will turn around and buy a few bottles, along with some wine related apparel, glassware, books, gift items and whatever else they manage to cram into the retail shops that extend off the tasting rooms.

Clearly consumers are not afraid to spend the money to sample wines from well-known producers. In some cases, well respected vineyards sell all of their season's production through the tasting room and mail order business. A trip to the winery is the only way to get these high quality vintages. Still, while places like the Napa valley and Sonoma benefit from hoards of wine tourists, it would be ashamed if the entry level wine drinker gets completely squeezed out of the picture. At $42.54 per tasting room per person, a couple traveling on a three day swing through the region could run up quite a bill. Hopefully, they will have a few bottles of wine to take back home with them and share with friends. That way, those friends might decide to go on a Sideways adventure of their own.


tedo said...

I know in my experience when I visited Napa last year my girlfriend and I split many a tasting to save some money. Also many tasting rooms we visited counted our tasting fee towards a bottle of wine, which encouraged us to buy one (well actually a few) bottles of wine. All in all I found our experience to be a great one and not too bad on the pocket book (as far as winery tastings go).

Rick Lyke said...

Crediting some or all of the tasting fee towards retail purchases is an excellent practice. Winery tasting rooms first appeared so that vineyards that did not have distribution could expose product to a wide audience and sell direct to consumers. Now at a number of places the tasting rooms have morphed into profit centers where you wonder how important it is to the winery if you actually leave with a couple of bottles.