Friday, February 27, 2009

Are Tasting Fees Acceptable?

I originally started this post in 2007, but never quite finished it. A recent post here and here made me think about the topic once again. Over the past year, my feelings have shifted a bit, but not dramatically. In 2007, I had a different frame of reference for tasting fees, wine prices, and what "good" wine really meant. Looking at the notes I had started for this post, I see that I expected more tastes for my money then, but the general principles are still the same.

Some of the shift in perspective has been because in the past 2 years, I've been exposed on numerous occasions to wines that previously would have been out of my range ($50+), and my palatte has shifted a bit to be able to appreciate these. In 2007, spending $40 on a wine was a rare occassion, and now I find myself being a club member of a couple places that only sell $40+ wine.

I'm comfortable paying a $5-$10 tasting fee, assuming that there are enough wines. I'm not willing to pay $10 for 3 tastes, unless the wines justify it (relatively expensive bottles with good reviews or word of mouth). For $5, I would expect to taste 3-5 wines. For $10, I'm expecting 6-7 wines. Getting a tasting fee refunded with purchases basically means I'm going to buy a bottle of wine (unless they are all crap), but there is no way I'm going to expect a "refunded with purchase" policy as a standard.

The two major sides to the argument about tasting fees speak to a tasting room covering costs (and keeping out the free-drinkers), and getting your wine into potential customer's hands. From the tasting room perspective, I doubt the $5-$10 is covering all the costs of wine, glassware, staff, electricity, etc. that is being consumed in the tasting room, so it can't all be about covering costs. Keeping out the free-drinkers is a valid reason, because those people don't care a bit about your wine, they just want a free buzz. Mostly, the tasting room is just looking to recoup some of their costs, while providing an opportunity to get their wine in front of the consumer.

Frankly, and this might sound harsh, if you can't afford a $5-$10 tasting fee for each of the 4-5 places you might stop in a day, then maybe you should find something else to do (or you could always share tastes with someone). Being in a tasting room is about more than just "trying before buying." You learn about the history and story of the winery and winemaker, about their philosophy towards wine, and get a better perspective of the fermented juice that you're drinking.

Sometimes, you might even get a history lesson about where the grapes were grown (I've gotten this before, while tasting at Tyrus Evan, and learned all I'd ever want to know about the Walla Walla area and the geological events that caused it to be what it is). If that itself isn't worth the admission fee, you get to try some wines you might not have access to otherwise.

Expecting to try wines for free seems to be an expectation held over from when the Oregon wine industry was in its infancy and trying to establish itself. In the '80s, Oregon didn't have the brand reputation it has now, and so it had to try and show that there was decent wine coming from here. With the quality of wine coming out of the area, paying $5-$10 to try something new seems fully within reason. I don't want the Willamette Valley to become the next Napa, with extrordinate tasting fees everywhere, but a few bucks here and there really shouldn't stop someone from experiencing what Oregon has to offer.


Miranda said...

Hey, first time reader, first time writer.:o) I found this blog out of interest in wine and my relative youth.

I'm fine with the fees. Yes, I suppose it keeps some people that have the interest out of the tasting room, but there are many expensive hobbies that sort of price out some people.

I find the fees here to be appropriate. A little cheaper than Napa, which has a more established wine market, but less than South Africa, which I found did have the fees, but they were a pittance. I also figure it's cheaper than buying a bottle and discovering it's not worth $75.

For_The_Love_Of_It_All said...

I want to thank you for your eloquent explanation as to why tasting fees are justifiable. I agree with every point you made and will be passing this on the my fellow winery owner friends.

Cheers and happy sipping!

VA Winery Owner - Loudoun County, VA

Ryan Fish said...

I recently visited Walla Walla and I didn't pay a penny for the 5 tasting rooms that I visited. Admittedly, I went during the slow part of the year, but no one asked for me to pay their advertised tasting fee.

Free wine is a fantastic opportunity to give interested wine drinkers a sales pitch and, as you said, give more information about the grape and the vintner's history. What better way to sell your wines than having eager drinkers come to your store to listen and listen story behind the grape? I think charging even a penny for tasting is absurd. I've never paid for a fitting room while shopping for clothes. Perhaps winemakers shouldn't have a tasting room if the winemaker isn't confident that a 1 ounce taste will be able to convince a buyer.

Compelling post. It would be nice to hear a wine maker's perspective!

For_The_Love_Of_It_All said...

More people come to the winery for entertainment than to simply shop for wine and purchasing a bottle does not justify a free tasting. With a minimum of 30 minutes dedicated to each customer, I would be out of business if I did not charge a fee. The overhead is immense at a winery (at least the wineries that have not gone commercial)and to have a well trained staff that can accurately explain the wines and the varietals is essential to the overall integrity of the experience. A well paid dedicated staff equates to customers that are satisfied with the experience at the winery - after all, wine is more than what lies in the glass. It is the family behind the wine, the story of the business, the winemaker, the memories you make while sipping and the overall experience while at the winery. The time we give the customer has value as does the samples. Once you are a winery owner, you can appreciate this perspective.

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