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.”

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  1. I lived in Sonoma County for 20 years, and always felt that the purpose of a tasting room (and free tastes) was a way for consumers to see what they liked, and what they wanted to buy in restaurants and at the retail level. This was an opportunity for the winery to educate their visitors and, perhaps, gain a long time customer. Then, it seemed, that instead of a marketing arm of the business, tasting rooms became a separate profit center almost overnight. Once they were trying to make money in the tasting room, all the rest went out the window. People started visiting wineries, not to learn, but to drink. The wineries probably had not choice but to charge for tasting.

    I always felt that the way to avoid the casual, tourist, drinker (rather than taster) was to perhaps have a regional pass that all of the wineries could participate in. One would pay a fee for say 90 days of free tasting at all of the wineries. People without the pass would pay the normal tasting room fee. That would give the serious wine consumers a chance to do their tasting, and at the same time, discourage the drinkers.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Big Dog Louie. We still offer free tastings at AVV (for our estate line), as well as free cave/winery tours and free barrel sampling of Cabernet (one in French oak and one in American oak).
    We use our tasting room as more of an education tool to show people about winemaking and less as a way to make money. The focus is on hospitality, and on the experience so that we will be one of the wineries they remember when their trip is over. When a guest visits 3-5 wineries per day over a 3 to 5 day trip it gets easy to be lost in the shuffle.

  3. Really interesting article! It made me want to try out some more of the tasting experiences in Sonoma County.

  4. I agree with the comments above. Now that tasting fees have become so commonplace, I actually feel that the experience is lessened, not heightened in many cases. While that’s not true everywhere, and certainly there are some tasting rooms that have maintained or improved customer relations regardless of tasting fees, I have witnessed the change from wonderful little side-of-the-road wine rooms into large, impersonal commercial rooms with disinterested servers that give off the impression of just cranking out another buck rather than making it an experience for guests. And yet just last month I visited a tasting room with free basic tastings and a nominal charge for premium tastings that ended up being our favorite stop of the weekend due to the personal attention we received in addition to their wonderful wines. We purchased more bottles there than anywhere else we stopped.

    I understand the premise behind charging tasting fees, and I don’t necessarily disagree that if demand supports those fees, why not make a bit more money. However, I do think that justifying those fees by saying they’re based on catering to the consumers rather than just another way to increase profits is an argument I imagine you’ll hear less agreement with from consumers than from those charging the fees and trying to convince themselves they’re doing for the benefit of their customers.

  5. We were one of the last in our area to charge a tasting fee. Our conversion rate was over 95% and the average sale was 2 bottles. We did go to $5 and now $10. (average for the Foothills)

    The numbers are almost the same.

    We do believe that people want a greater experience. A tour, meet the winemaker, taste something in the back.

    When we can we always give a tour… the results are greater than you could imagine.

  6. Tasting fees are not a problem but unreasonably high ones are. I was in Australia in October ’16 and went to the Yarra Valley for a day. Not a single winery charged for tastings. I’ve been to several in northern Spain that charge nothing as well as the Lavaux Terrces in Switzerland. $10 or $15 with a credit towards a purchase is acceptable but when you start charging $25 – $35 per tasting it’s just ridiculous.

  7. I was new to Sonoma County in the 1980’s. No tasting fees anywhere. What a welcoming to wine country. But I’m not in the business and the arguments for fees now make a lot of sense financially for the wineries. Currently with out of state family visitors I am rather embarrassed to take them on any tours and be unable myself to pay for their experience. So instead of their seeing many wineries of the county we will drive around and see the lovely scenery and the vineyards; maybe stop at one tasting room; maybe buy a couple bottles of wine. The fees, even accompanied by tours and special attentions, do not suit everyone. It seems another way of only catering to The Elite. The spirit of welcoming has gotten lost in the process. It’s a sad acknowledgement, don’t you think? gpotter

  8. I have mixed feelings regarding tasting fees. I do understand that wineries need to make money. If they are giving away more wine than they are selling, they are not going to make a profit.

    When I taste wine for free, I feel obligated to purchase a bottle of wine in return (even if there isn’t a wine I would normally purchase). When I pay for a tasting, I don’t feel this same obligation.

    I do feel that a winery should at least apply the tasting fee toward any wine purchased. Most do.


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