“Free wine!” you might think, driving up to the tasting room of a winery in Napa, Sonoma, the San Ynez Valley, or even Long Island. You might have been correct in the seventies and eighties before Americans discovered the French Paradox, the film Sideways, and developed a more sophisticated palate.
“Many people never had a glass of wine until they walked into this restaurant,” Charlie Palmer told me just after the opening of Aureole in Las Vegas with its gigantic glass wine tower, designed by Architect Adam Tihany after watching Tom Cruise in the film Mission Impossible. That was in 1999.
Now that wine has entered pop culture and visiting tasting rooms are considered a cool weekend activity, winemakers no longer have to give away free samples to attract potential customers. Yet many visitors resent what they feel are nickel-and-dime tactics on the part of wineries. Veronica Barclay conducted an interesting survey for Wine Business Monthly on the subject in which they surveyed many wineries about what they charge, what the patron gets for his money, and their rationale for it.
According to the survey, most wineries don’t charge per taste of an individual wine, but offer a menu that includes a tasting of three, five, or more wines at a price ranging between $5-20. Some wineries offer “estate tasting” by appointment, which includes library wines paired with food made by in-house chefs.
From the winery’s point of view, the reasons for charging per taste are quite valid. One of the most important reasons cted is that charging for wine calls for a level of restraint and helps patrons avoid driving under the influence. A second reason has to do with showcasing the wine in the best light – the so-called Tiffany approach in which diamonds are carefully placed on a black velvet display by a pair of exceedingly manicured hands so the potential buyer can get a sense of their value.
Charging for wine is one way to block out the ‘partiers’ and focus quality attention on customers who want to learn about the wine. This past summer, I visited Wolffer Estates, among other Long Island wineries, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the tasting experience. The servers were well versed in all wines and actually made an effort to speak intelligently about them as they dutifully trudged from the tasting room to the sunny patio every five minutes to give a taste of a new wine.
The Wolffer Estates tasting experience was more similar to a restaurant than anything else, with the tasting menu beginning at about $10 and going upward from there, depending on how many library wines a patron wanted to try. Food (a cheese plate) is also for sale (no outside food allowed). At the end of the tasting, servers bring the check in a restaurant style folder with a clearly marked line for gratuity (which they very much deserve, considering they managed to sound enthusiastic even though they must have given the same talk five hundred times that day).
Wineries are competing against an increasing number of free tasting events at wine stores where merchants pop corks in the “free sample” tradition of Mrs. Fields cookies, hoping to get customers to try and buy an unfamiliar wine. To add value, some wineries give free tours and others refund the price of the tasting if a customer buys wine.
Where do you stand?