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Friday, August 20, 2010

The history of winery tasting fees

No, it wasn't always twenty-five bucks to taste a few wines in Napa.   And yes, I gonna dump on Napa Valley here cuz it's fun!

The good ol' days

Before the mid-1980s nobody charged for tastings.   The environment was different as there were far fewer wineries and pretty much everybody in the business wanted to do all they could to encourage visitors to sample their not-so-well-known product.
As wine tasting boomed in Napa Valley starting about 1980, with Robert Mondavi considered the founder of the modern Napa, it became apparent that some people came to town for a free buzz rather than looking for wine to buy.  It became too easy to get looped in about a ten mile stretch of Highway 29.

The reasonable years

I remember my first encounter with tasting fees -- on Highway 29 in Napa, of course.  I was PO'ed they would try to do this and I left.    But with so many tasting rooms available and some folks not able to just pick four or five wineries a day fees became the norm as a means of crowd control.   The thinking was if everyone had to pay five bucks at each stop they would limit themselves.

This is also when the idea of responsible hospitality came along and the wineries had to worry about serving anyone intoxicated.

Tasting room fees inflated with time especially in the crowded areas like Napa. At some point the accounting-types saw a substantial income coming from the fees especially in the busiest wineries and they said, "Let's charge more and make more!"   

I don't begrudge anyone from trying to cover their costs.  Building and operating a winery visitor center isn't inexpensive.   But the idea of the tasting room as a marketing expense went away and it has become a profit center.

About five years ago the typical Napa Valley fee was in the ten dollar range up to twenty for reserve tastings or the high-end wineries.

The greedy times

With the accountants now aware of the revenue to be generated they said, "If we're not seeing as many visitors and they're not buying as much $50 wine then let's raise our tasting fees to help cover our shortfall." Yes, this is what happens when people who don't work the job or understand the customer are put in charge of the decision process. It happens in every business.

I have seen wineries raise their fees as the current recession took hold.  It's almost a government mentality. That is, when you have a shortfall of money (as they do now) your officials want to raise taxes on people who are already strapped. To their credit I went to one upper Napa Valley winery about a year ago that actually stopped charging fees to encourage visitors to come in. What a concept!

So now you've got a typical tasting room fee of $25 in Napa--per person. So if two couples are going that's $100 a stop! The high fees I'm sure encourage couples to share a tasting rather than each have their own and that's probably a good thing.

Though many Sonoma County tasting rooms have begun charging fees in the past several years they are still mostly in the five-to-ten dollar range.

 Napa vs. the rest

In Napa you can probably count on one hand the number of free tastings available today.  In Sonoma and some other popular areas most charge for tasting, but many still do not and they charge less than Napa.   For northern Sonoma County you can find the wineries that offer complimentary tastings at their association's website http://www.wineroad.com/. Also, you can use Google to search for comp tasting or 2 for 1 tasting coupons.  I encourage you to visit these people.

Other lesser known areas, such as in the Sierra Foothills (Amador, El Dorado, etc.), rarely charge a fee.

In general, Napa Valley tasting rooms charge more and do not refund the fee with purchase.  In other areas the fees are less and most will apply the fee towards a wine purchase.   If you're visiting you have to check with each winery to learn their policy and costs.

Where is this going?

The number one complaint of visitors to Napa used to be the crowds and the traffic.  Now it is high tasting fees with no refund on purchase.   At some point the greediness may backfire, but only if people stay away.   Or maybe $20 or $30 doesn't seem that high to you when visiting the world-famous Napa Valley.