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Gary Barlettano

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SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Gary Barlettano » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:11 pm

One of my frequent laments is that the expense and hype surrounding tasting rooms in Napa has dulled my interest in traveling there. Much of what used to be a tool for the introduction to a winery's wines has turned into a self-supporting revenue stream, a profit center in and of itself. This article speaks to this issue nicely:

Tiny Pours Equal Big Business: Tasting rooms are a crucial source of income for California wineries

Now, I am not saying that the wineries should not do this. Business is business and people have to earn a living. Would I do the same? Probably to a certain extent.

I guess the bottom line for me is fairness and value. I go where I feel I'm not being taken advantage of. I go where I feel I'm going to learn something about the wine. But, I fear, the opportunity for this is growing smaller and smaller.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Robin Garr » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:24 pm

I think it goes a little beyond "business is business," Gary. It also has to do with what happens when a wine region becomes a tourist destination in its own right.

In most world wine regions, particularly in Europe, also Down Under, most people who visit wineries do so because they're buying wine directly, and the tasting room/cellar door serves the winery best by offering people hospitable service and a generous pour, in the expectation that a significant number of their guests are going home with cases in the trunk.

In Napa in particular - and I've seen this development over my own lifetime, my first visit to the wine country having been in {gasp} 1970 - most wine tourism is no longer folks who want to buy wine, but folks who want to taste each winery's samples and then move on. For a time there, maybe in the '80s, Napa became a hot spot because it was a great place to go pig out on wine, get good and buzzed, and do it all for free! What's not to like? :roll:

I believe it was mostly in self-defense that wineries started instituting tasting fees. Of course this really p!$$ed people off, but the angriest were those who were mad about losing a freebie and weren't supporting the industry anyway.

I'm sure that in the ensuing years, a lot of wineries - especially the more commercial - came to view the tasting room as a revenue center in its own right, and the original concept was lost.

But it's been my experience, particularly at the smaller, owner-operated tasting rooms, if you go in with a notebook and a wine-geek attitude, and pointedly spit and dump, the tasting room staff is very likely to recognize you as a pro and waive the fee.

I don't know if this has changed in Napa - I haven't been tasting there for a few years - but it sure used to work.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Gary Barlettano » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:58 pm

But it's not so much paying a fee per se which bugs me. It's the amount and what you get for it. Very little wine, very little info, and very little time ...


Can't find any way to disagree with that, Gary. That may be one reason why I rarely spend much time in Napa tasting rooms (unless it's an interview tasting arranged in advance). The other reason being that I've been there and done that, pretty much. I'm not one of those knee-jerk anti-Napa people at all, but having been there so many times over the years, there's not much benefit for me in a mass tasting-room experience at wineries I already know.

the marketing arm of the wine industry created its own monster, i.e. wine tourism, and now is in the process of taming it profitably.


Which, of course, is what marketers are paid to do ...
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Robin Garr » Sat Sep 09, 2006 1:15 pm

Oh, good lord. I hit "edit" rather than "quote".

Sorry, Gary. I wiped out part of your reply. I'm an idiot!
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Gary Barlettano » Sat Sep 09, 2006 1:22 pm

Robin Garr wrote:Oh, good lord. I hit "edit" rather than "quote".

Sorry, Gary. I wiped out part of your reply. I'm an idiot!


Ah, but ve haff our mezzods ...

Robin Garr wrote:But it's been my experience, particularly at the smaller, owner-operated tasting rooms, if you go in with a notebook and a wine-geek attitude, and pointedly spit and dump, the tasting room staff is very likely to recognize you as a pro and waive the fee.

I don't know if this has changed in Napa - I haven't been tasting there for a few years - but it sure used to work.


50-50 on that in my own experience. Your best chance to get the fee waived is to have a business card which reflects that you're ITB. If you can identify yourself as a local, you usually also get a break from the charge in Napa.

But it's not so much paying a fee per se which bugs me. It's the amount and what you get for it. Very little wine, very little info, and very little time ... unless you go to one of those private tastings and get lucky. Now, I've attended a couple of those which were worth it and others which were a sham.

Your analysis of the historical developments tracks with mine and reflects comments I've heard from many winery owners and employees. I frankly feel, however, that the marketing arm of the wine industry created its own monster, i.e. wine tourism, and now is in the process of taming it profitably.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Brian K Miller » Sat Sep 09, 2006 4:21 pm

In defense of the Napa wineries, most will waive any fees if you buy wine. (That assumes that there wine is worth buying or fits your tastes, of course). Also, the small pours may be a bit of self defense due to the very cruise and booze tourists that you note-small tastes reduce their potential liability, perhaps?

Sonoma-particularly smaller wineries-seems to be much more low key and they often don't charge. Heck, the guy at Sausal Winery opened for me a 1995 library Cab wine when I asked about it :) (He made a sale)
...(Humans) are unique in our capacity to construct realities at utter odds with reality. Dogs dream and dolphins imagine, but only humans are deluded. –Jacob Bacharach
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Bob Sisak » Mon Sep 11, 2006 9:28 am

Generally speaking, I go to wineries that aren't open to the public for a number of reasons. There aren't the crowds as are at the "public" wineries. Having made an appointment for a specific time, we usually get to taste with the owner/winemaker. We almost always get to taste something special dragged out of the depths of the winery's cellar. That said, we do stop at several wineries open to the public on our trips, and being ITB I always present my business card. That always waives the tasting fee, and gets us a healthy discount - usually 20% to 33%. Interestingly, the only tasting room fee I've paid in years was back here on the east coast a few years ago at Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, VA.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Bill Buitenhuys » Mon Sep 11, 2006 11:06 am

Hi Bob, Welcome to the forum. It's always good to see another MA resident here.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Hoke » Mon Sep 11, 2006 2:20 pm

There are a couple of aspects of this topics that haven't been discussed---or really mentioned---as yet.

First, has anyone stopped to think about what a tasting room operation---a decent one, anyway---costs a winery to run? It's expensive. And the more popular the tasting room, the more expensive it is. It's not so much the cost of the wine, although that can be quite considerable, but the cost of creating and maintaining a nice spot and paying the personnel to operate it. Those staffers have to be payed, after all. And records have to be kept, and books have to be maintained.

When it was a small cottage industry (which, yes, in some cases it still is) perhaps the obvious costs weren't as high. But think about it: someone still has to maintain that tasting room. A couple I know well here in Sonoma have a small operation. Literally, just the two of them. So they though they'd put in a tasting room. Takes a lot of time to do that, and a lot of effort. And not an inconsequential amount of money, by the way. Just the two of them, mind you. So they tried to staff it themselves at first. Then who does the work that needs to be done (like, say, pruning the vineyards, or picking the grapes, or making the wine, or paying the bills) while one is staffing the tasting room and the other is doing the day job that allows them to have the vineyard in the first place?

If you're a bigger operation, and you're successful, you've got lots of employees to maintain. And if you're the only one in the area that doesn't charge a fee, you rapidly become the favorite winery for all the people who want a free source of drinks...and most of those people have no intention whatsoever of buying anything. But if you're not prompt with the pour, you tend to piss those people off and then they badmouth your winery because you're "inhospitable".

And then, the worst thing happens: you get on the big tour bus schedule, Because it doesn't cost the tour company anything to drop off fifty or so people at a time to flood the tasting room for an hour or so. And I can tell you this, folks: there's not a winery tasting room I know that doesn't cringe a little (or a lot) when the tour buses roll in. They make a lot of noise, they drink a lot, but they hardly every buy anything. They might, just might, leave with good feelings about the place, sure, but so what?

The other thing people don't think about much is the liability issue that tasting rooms have. Also, the responsibility of the winery to the neighborhood. How would you feel about tasting rooms if you lived next to one and they had parties every day, with literally hundreds of people driving out of their parking lot and clogging up the roads...and perhaps loaded to the gills with "free wine"?

Me? I think tasting rooms are great. They're fun to visit, and it's nice to be able to taste wines. I'm ITB, so I almost never have to pay at a tasting room. Plus, I usually get pretty good courtesy discounts. But I almost always pay the tasting fees anyway, and don't mention I'm ITB unless I buy something, because, hey, that's the courteous thing to do.

Also, quite honestly, I like the idea of a modest tasting fee...because it makes me think for just a second whether I really want to sample all the wines. Or any of them. Makes me more selective. And at the end of the day, especially if there's lots of tasting rooms on the schedule, that's a good thing.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Robin Garr » Mon Sep 11, 2006 2:33 pm

Hoke wrote:There are a couple of aspects of this topics that haven't been discussed---or really mentioned---as yet.


Hmm, very good points, Hoke. Thanks for bringing another perspective to the issue, one that most of us don't think about.
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Hoke » Mon Sep 11, 2006 3:49 pm

Robin Garr wrote:
Hoke wrote:There are a couple of aspects of this topics that haven't been discussed---or really mentioned---as yet.


Hmm, very good points, Hoke. Thanks for bringing another perspective to the issue, one that most of us don't think about.


Not orginal on my part, Robin...I heard enough about tasting rooms when my wife was working the tasting room at Kunde.

I was torqued up when Napa (snif, snif) started charging for tastings, actually. My knee jerk was the same as most folks, I expect. Then my wife started giving me chapter and verse about realities.

Truth is, times have changed (as you duly noted in your original comments). The wine biz...at least in the accepted areas and in the tourist zones...well established, and doesn't solely depend on things like tasting rooms to entice people to come in and try the product.

Nowadays, tasting rooms are as much a separate business as the winery operation is. To be successful nowadays, a tasting room of a big winery has to not only generate tourist activity, it has to successfully manage a direct-shipping/wine club operation, and be able to accomodate large and small groups for hospitality. I don't think the wine biz will ever get away from the 'hands on hospitality' aspect. At least, I hope it doesn't. We don't need more soulless enterprises in this world, do we? :)
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Re: SFGate.com Article on Tasting Rooms: TINY POURS EQUAL BIG BUSINESS

by Lou Kessler » Mon Sep 11, 2006 9:34 pm

Hoke wrote:There are a couple of aspects of this topics that haven't been discussed---or really mentioned---as yet.



Thanks Hoke, a well written post about problems, cost, and work involved with tasting rooms. Some of the older stories about tourists and drinking too much vino while stopping in almost every tasting room on highway 29 are legendary and not too pretty. The liability issues alone forced wineries to change their approach to tasting.

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