Is there a way for brands to meet the lofty expectations of guests
without scaring them away with sky-high fees?
By Kathleen Willcox
In 2019, wine tasting fees and experiences ran the gamut from bare-bones to over-the-top. We all know what happened next.
Since the pandemic, a potent cocktail of wanderlust, FOMO and social media-driven one-upmanship has seemingly infected both wine lovers and makers, transforming expectations of what a “normal” wine tasting should include.
Should a wine tasting be a straightforward flight of wines with a bit of explanation, or do people not just want, but require, more in order to be drawn in: tastings in tree houses, caves or on horseback, perhaps? Should it cost $25 or $250?
Right about now, you (or your inner cranky pants) may be grumbling: Remember the days when tastings in Napa Valley were free? (For the record, neither do I). But one thing is clear: the prices for wine tastings have outpaced inflation considerably, and people are starting to get frustrated.
Is there a way for brands to meet the lofty expectations of guests without scaring them away with sky-high fees?
The Complaints and the Numbers
We’ve all read the takedowns in the Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast and the San Francisco Chronicle. And they raise some very salient points: perhaps $1,300 per night is a bit much for a hotel room. And yes, tasting fees of $225 per person do seem a bit steep.
These considerations have become increasingly relevant as the wine industry struggles to welcome new and young wine lovers to the table — the only growth area appears to be in the aged 60+ cohort. We surveyed winemakers from across the country to find out what “normal” means to them, and then consider what that may mean for consumers and the future health of the industry.
The average bill for a tasting of a handful of wines in Napa Valley is about three times what it would be in Washington State.
The average wine tasting room fee in Napa is $81, according to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2023 Direct-to-Consumer Wine Survey. Napa leads the country; the average fee, by comparison, is $32 in Oregon and $26 in Washington.
But those numbers are, in many ways, products and reflection of the larger economic picture of each region, and are wrapped up in the engrained perception of the quality of the region. Just consider the average price paid for Cabernet Sauvignon by the ton: $8,819 for Napa on average, $1,505 for Washington.
Less Is Often So Much More
Jason Haas, the second-generation proprietor of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Calif., has put a great deal of thought into hospitality and has personally responded to multiple articles documenting the complex tasting fee landscape. In a bid to introduce the widest swath of people to the wine, he says he has decided to keep tastings as simple and affordable as possible.
“We really only have one tasting, and it’s $25,” Haas explains. “And that gets comped with the purchase of two bottles of wine or a club signup. We also don’t charge our wine club members or members of the trade for their tastings.”
Haas worries that the “steady upward trend in prices” does make visiting wineries less appealing both for new customers and regulars. Lori Budd, co-founder of Dracaena Wines in Paso, is actually afraid that the $20 tasting fee charged at its downtown tasting room may be too little.
“There is the belief that if something costs more, it must be better,” Budd says. “But in the end, we want people to enjoy our wines without having to think twice about being able to afford it.”
Keikilani McKay, executive director of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, says prices are a frequent topic of conversation among her members. For now, they’ve decided, as a region, to maintain modest tasting fees (often $15-$35).
“We want to create accessible wine experiences for all and offer visitors the opportunity to connect directly with winemakers and proprietors,” McKay says.
Other producers who are eager to bring in new wine lovers are focused on figuring out how to deliver polished experiences — that are as much about the vibe as they are about the wine — at reasonable prices.
“Our wines aren’t ‘cheap,’ comparatively speaking, when you look at other wineries in our region,” says Jay Hill, co-owner of Rio Grande Winery in Las Cruces, N.M. “We’ve invested in staff, facilities and the overall experience in the hope of drawing more millennials to our tasting room.”
The result: a lounge-y vibe with an expansive patio, perfect for taking in sunsets over the Organ Mountains.
With flights starting at $16, and “free” live music, paint-and-sip events and food truck nights, Rio Grande is pulling in around 25,000 visitors per year.
The enjoyment first, wine education second philosophy is becoming increasingly pervasive at tasting rooms across the country. The pandemic — an era of virtual tastings that is, everyone agreed, essentially over — changed the way many brands presented their wines, pushing them to focus more on empowering visitors to enjoy the wine, full stop.
“Before the pandemic, all of our tastings were face-to-face with lots of talking about the wines,” says Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, co-owner of Whitecliff Vineyard and Winery in Gardiner, N.Y. “But we realized that not everyone wants that. Some people prefer to go outside with friends, or simply chat with each other, rather than speaking to us.”
Now, Whitecliff offers a range of options, including a grab-and-go flights of five wines for $16, with written information on the wine, and a guided tasting of six wines for $22 with face-to-face education.
But Sometimes, More Is More
Simple flights of wine are available across the country at a range of prices, generally designed to cost enough to make it financially viable, while still drawing in neophytes. But many winemakers recognize that many customers expect more than wine. And they’re willing to pay for it.
The newly-opened SALDO Salon in Napa is trying to completely disrupt the standard premium tasting model, while still offering über-premium options for those who want an in-depth experience.
“We want to meet people where they are, and create a dialog that will not only push them further along their journey, but also guide us,” says Robyn West, director of hospitality at SALDO Wines’ parent company, the Prisoner Wine Company. “We offer a la carte walk-in tastings by the glass, and more extensive experiences.”
The space itself — a lounge thoughtfully curated with a range of coffee table books, a leather-lined floor-to-ceiling fireplace, two velvet couches, a walk-up bar, a dining space and a covered patio with lounge seating — invites lingering and encourages communal chatter.
“At most tasting rooms, people hang for an hour. They’re in and out,” West says. “But we want them to stay here, and the whole purpose of the space — and, indeed, the brand — is to explore. This may be the first and only opportunity folks have to try Carbonic Zinfandel and a skin-fermented Falanghina, alongside our classic Zin and Red Blend.”
The direct-to-consumer only line of wine, served alongside its core offerings and whimsical experiences, are designed to draw curious, new people to SALDO, West says. Currently, the wine and culinary experience is $175 per person, and entails a Mexican-inspired, locally sourced menu with dishes like oysters with aguachile, kampachi toastadas and chicken tamales with mole sauce.
“I feel like we’ve all had enough wine and cheese board experiences,” she notes. “We wanted to do something really different.”
At Mount Salem Vineyards in Pittstown, N.J., owner Peter Leitner also offers a range of experiences, starting from a no-reservation walk-in tasting flight of five wine samples, or a full glass, for $15. He also offers a more comprehensive experience.
“The private tastings require an appointment, take about 90 minutes and include six wines,” he says, adding that they cost $50 per person. “And every month, we host a food and wine pairing lunch and dinner, for $55 and $90, respectively.”
Those invite-only tastings are available to folks on the winery’s mailing list and members of the wine club.
That insider-vibe and sense of community is precisely what these wineries are striving to build.
“We actually ask people at the Salon for feedback on the wines, and what they’d love to try in the future,” West says. “And we take [their comments] very seriously. We are committed to bringing more people to the table. Because without them, where will we be?”
Out of business, according to Haas of Tablas Creek.
“Our direct-to-consumer sales — including wine club, tasting room and shipped orders — account for 60% of our volume and 80% of our revenue, so they’re critical to the success of the business. Something like 80% of our wine club sign ups happen in our tasting room, with another 10% from people who’ve visited previously but just took a while to commit.”
Normal in Napa will never be normal in New Jersey. But for wineries struggling to continue to attract new wine lovers to the bar, they may want to consider opening their doors just a little bit wider and including more introductory options, along with their most sumptuous and gilded offerings.
Even cult brands with 100-point wines that are currently sought after by older collectors will need a new fanbase eventually.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox