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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Barrel Tasting Changes Needed?

Image from
Sonoma County's Wine Road Association

The Wine Road is the best winery association I've had dealings with. They are great people and they do an exceptional job of promoting northern Sonoma County (mostly Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys).

Their key fundraising event is the Barrel Tasting on the first two weekends of March. Many years ago this was actually a free one weekend event where people attended in order to taste young wines still in the barrel before they were bottled and buy futures on the ones they liked. "Futures" means you buy now at a reduced price, but don't get the wine until after it's been bottled and released.

Changes in the Barrel Tasting

This event got very popular and the Wine Road started charging a nominal fee that has now risen to what is really a fair price of $30 in advance or $40 at the door.

For many wineries this affair has gone from a chance to sell futures on their wines or at least meet potential new customers to a huge party especially for the under 30 year old crowd. Why? It's been a relatively cheap weekend for drinking (it was $15-20 dollars for an entire weekend up until recently). The bigger issue has been a few wineries promoting this as a big party.

Current state

A few years ago I was in the town of Healdsburg on a Saturday afternoon during Barrel Tasting weekend. This town has dozens of tasting rooms in a small area. It looked like Mardi Gras on the streets with groups of younger folks carrying their glasses around while shouting, screaming, singing, etc. between tasting rooms. OK, they're not doing anything wrong as long as they're not driving, but anyone can see the potential for problems. (You can read my earlier post about Healdsburg here).

It's not just the young folks having a good time as this year late one afternoon I overheard a group of 50-somethings singing the Mickey Mouse theme song, "M-I-C...K-E-Y..."  No, I don't know why either.  LOL

Dry Creek Valley on Saturday afternoon is known as party-central--the place is crawling with cars and limos. They first weekend of Barrel Tasting this year there were a couple minor incidents with tipsy customers where the State Highway Patrol was called in plus there were numerous occasions where wineries refused service to groups.

The complaint that got me laughing were the quotes from a person at Armida Winery in Dry Creek complaining about the hoards of young drinkers partying and maybe keeping out the "serious buyers."  I find this really funny as Armida is the original party place for Barrel Tasting. They, as much as anyone, have turned this event into more of a big college frat party than a futures purchasing weekend.

Not everybody or every winery falls into this category. Many people are out to find new wineries that aren't usually open to the public or are looking to buy futures on wine. Many of the younger crowd are there to learn about wine. Unfortunately, these wineries and tasters appear to be a smaller and smaller minority every year.

Participating wineries

It's a lot of work to partake in an event like this especially for small wineries. If you might normally see a couple dozen visitors a day this time of year and now see hundreds during Barrel Tasting there's lots of work to get set up. Staffing, parking, having barrel samples, etc. all can be issues. Not to mention having to be a bouncer. Winery personnel are in the hospitality business and don't want to have to say "no" to anyone especially someone who might be a bit boisterous or even belligerent.

Just after the Barrel Tasting event ended I talked with a few winery people--sometimes the tasting room person, sometimes it was an owner/winemaker. The folks at the larger wineries often said, "This is the last year we are participating in the Barrel Tasting." I laughed and said, "Maybe you'll forget about the problems nine months from now."  Or maybe not. The small wineries seemed to appreciate the opportunity to meet so many new potential customers--and the smaller ones didn't have to deal with the groups in buses.

Changes needed?

Should people be stopped from having a good time? Not necessarily, but you just don't want a major incident like a fatality on the road because someone was drunk behind the wheel. Even the folks that take a limo have to eventually drive unless they're being picked up at their hotel.

So what do you do? The Wine Road members talk about this every year. So far they've come up with raising the prices in order to cut the crowds, but that hasn't happened yet as the visitor count is up. That is good, of course, as long as the "drunk count" isn't also going up.

Other things that could be discussed are:
  • Limiting the number of tastes per winery. Right now crowds are descending on certain wineries and hanging out there and drinking for most of the day.  If you keep people moving on to the next stop they will consume less over the course of the day and they will experience more wineries. That should be good for everybody.
  • There should be no other drinking allowed on the property--no wine by the glass sales, for instance. 
  • The event stops at 4 pm. Some wineries are normally open to 5 pm or later, but all should stop serving at 4 pm.
  • It would be great if limo and bus drivers in this event agreed to not have any other alcohol in their vehicles. Unfortunately, they don't have, or at least don't feel they have, any responsibility for the behavior their clients. Perhaps as fewer and fewer wineries allow these groups they will get the message.

Press Democrat article on the first weekend of Barrel Tasting.

Update: Press Democrat article on Healdsburg business owner's problems