Home Wine Business Editorial Free or Discounted Wine Tasting Options Vanishing in Sonoma County

Free or Discounted Wine Tasting Options Vanishing in Sonoma County


Industry Follows Napa’s Lead in Charging Premium Prices for ‘High End’ Experiences

By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

Back in what might be described as the good old days, consumers could waltz into any given tasting room on any given day in Sonoma County and enjoy several samples of locally produced, high quality wine at no cost.

In fact, Sonoma County prided itself on that freewheeling, open door policy as a way to be distinguished from nearby Napa Valley, which was quickly earning a reputation for elite wine tasting experiences at premium prices.

Those days are now pretty much a thing of the past as Sonoma County follows its famous neighbor’s lead and wineries throughout the region move steadily toward fee for tasting, seated tasting experiences and, increasingly, tasting by appointment only.

Beth Costa, the Executive Director of Sonoma County Wine Road, a marketing organization for the local wine industry, remembers back about twenty years ago when she was working for Kendall Jackson and the winery first decided to change its no-fee tasting room practices.

“It was two dollars per person then and the guest got to keep the glass,” Costa recalls. “And yet, it killed the staff to have to charge for it. They were resistant; they wanted to be hospitable. Things have definitely changed.”

Costa argues that consumers themselves are driving the shift by demanding more from their winery visits than casual conversation and a few free sips.

“People’s tastes have changed,” she attests. “People want to meet the winemaker, learn about viticulture, they want to be educated. People want an experience.”

Tammy Boatright, the President/Founder of VingDirect, a national, direct to consumer wine marketing firm operating in Sonoma County since 2008, could not agree more.

“We don’t have one region we work with anymore that doesn’t charge tasting fees,” Boatright declares. “What we’ve seen in the industry is that as fees go up, sales and conversion rates go up as well. It’s Marketing 101. People value what they pay for; they do not value what they get for free.”

Costa points out that the increasing popularity of Sonoma County wines has brought droves of tourists into the area, which makes crowd control an issue and strengthens the case for wineries to have more restrictive policies, including fees for service.

“It’s funny, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Costa notes ruefully. “You advertise your beautiful grounds and pretty soon you have busloads of people showing up to use your private picnic facilities. It becomes really hard to manage.”

There are still some wineries in Sonoma County that have maintained no-fee tasting options for their guests.

Korbel Champagne Cellars in the Russian River Valley is one of them. Visitors to Korbel can take a 30 to 45 minute facility tour, followed by a complimentary, sparkling wine tasting at the winery’s bar, with no reservations required.

In an email response to questions, Marge Healy, Korbel’s, VP of Communications writes, “We want our visitors to feel like our guests and therefore we don’t charge for touring or tasting.  That said we want everyone to be able to experience the magic of Korbel. Korbel did not get to where it is without the support of our loyal fans. This is our way of giving back.”

While Korbel does offer several other private tour and tasting options that require pre-planning and payment, the company intends to keep free tours and tastings on the menu for now. According to Healy, “To my knowledge, I do not see our policy changing anytime soon.”

But Korbel may be one of the exceptions.

Carla Jeffries is the General Manger of Thumbprint Cellars, which operates a busy tasting room in the heart Healdsburg, where there are dozens of wineries within walking distance of the downtown square.

Jeffries says the industry is definitely moving away from complimentary tastings or VISA signature type discounts because guests devalue the experience, and the tasting room staff works hard to deliver a visit worth remembering.

“To really understand that person in front of you takes finesse, it takes time,” Jeffries explains. “And from the customer’s perspective, they’re thinking ‘wow, they really want to know about me.’ I think the industry is moving toward giving people what they want, because there’s value in that and people are willing to pay for it.”

Jim Morris is the Director of Business and Hospitality for Flanagan Wines, a winery that was located in Bennett Valley for more than a decade before moving operations and a new tasting room to Healdsburg last December.

Flanagan Wines offers tasting by appointment only and charges $40 per person. That fee is waived if the customer purchases three bottles of wine, which range in price from about $50 to $150 per bottle.

Morris says the decision to structure the tasting room this way comes from a desire to create a more high-end experience for guests that “reflects our brand from top to bottom.”

“There are 442 plus wineries in Sonoma County alone,” Morris claims. “How do you stand out with 442 wineries? You better have a compelling story and you better be able to tell it well. We can’t (do that) in a crowded tasting room.”

Morris describes Flanagan Wines as delivering “very intimate, one-on-one tastings” that will often include a cheese pairing from local producers that helps to showcase the diversity of Sonoma County agricultural commodities. He says Flanagan Wines is also partnering with other like-minded wineries and lodging businesses in an attempt to create a complete hospitality package for his guests.

So far, the formula seems to be working.

Morris asserts that since the tasting room opened at the end of last year, he has only had to charge about a dozen tasting fees because visitors have responded so positively through purchases and wine club enrollments.

“Our wines are not inexpensive,” he acknowledges. “If you’re going to charge a lot of money, the value better be there.”