Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Wine Tasting Fees: A Necessary Evil

 

Wine Tasting Fees
Wine tasting fees.  How much are they and why do I pay them?

We recently returned from an incredible wine country adventure that took place in Sonoma and Napa, California over three full days.  While we were there, our wine-loving group of six had the opportunity to visit nine wineries.  Wait, that's not right.  We added a tenth winery, but it was literally for just a glass of wine as they couldn't squeeze us in for a tasting.

Prior to the trip, we had combed over our options, created a whiteboard and mapped out best practices based on location, time of day and whether or not we had any "must see" properties.  It turns out that we did.  So much has changed since the last time we were in Napa ... including the wine tasting fees!  Don't get me wrong.  We weren't blindsided and we had our eyes wide open when creating our plans.  Most of the wineries we were visiting were what we would classify as very special places.  These weren't the 5,000,000 cases of box wines for $3.99.  About half of the wineries on our tour were very low-production, no-distribution gems that you could only visit if you were members.

As a professional courtesy, I reached out to 6 of the wineries that made our final cut.  Our good friends who we joined on the trip were wine club members or had connections at 3 others, so they made those contacts.  After the professional courtesies and wine club member discounts that we all had, we were looking at right around $250.00 in wine tasting fees for nine wineries.  When you break it down, it is really very reasonable!  Only one tasting room required payment up front, which ironically, was our least favorite of the trip and no wine was purchased there.

Wine Tasting Experience
You have to pay to play!  Wine isn't free and either is your tasting.

So are wine tasting fees just a racket?  Are they a way of adding a few bucks to the bottom line and vintners wring their hands together and salivate as the tour buses of blue hairs arrive daily?  While there may be a small hint of truth to the second point, wineries really are NOT making anything from you off of their tasting fees.  In our case, we opted for an "elevated" tasting experience at most of the places that we visited.  We weren't keen on bellying up to the wine bar with a crowd of sweaty tourists who had just left their 5th winery before noon.  We sought out and asked for private tastings (or semi-private if that is all that was available).  For the general population, our fees would have ranged from $45 - $100 per person.  Again, we were afforded some professional discounts and gratis tastings.

Private Wine Tasting With Charcuterie
A private or elevated tasting experience will cost more, but it is worth it.

Why do wineries charge fees and why have increased substantially over the last five years?  To answer the question, you have to look back at history.  The smaller, boutique or low production wineries are constantly in fear of being swept about by the Constellation Brands and the E&J Gallo of the world.  Keeping a foothold in an area of the world where a plot of land can sell upwards of $500,000 for an acre of grapes is extremely daunting as well as constantly tempting - to cash in!

Low production means just that.  Wineries that produce 1000, 3500, or even 7500 cases of wine annually have to be very select on how that wine is consumed.  If that winery uses 10% or even 5% of their annual production for wine tastings, it hits their net income hard.  

Remember the horrific fires that consumed various parts of Sonoma and Napa in 2020?  Even if a winery and/or its vineyards remained physically untouched, many red wine grapes were affected with smoke taint and could not be harvested.  Imagine raising, nourishing and encouraging your crop for an entire year, only to have it wiped out days before harvest.  The folks at CADE Winery told us that because of the smoke taint, they will not have any 2020 vintage red wines at all.

And then there was a little thing that we all recall because we are still living with it in some fashion. The worldwide pandemic known as Covid-19 left no stone unturned, including wine country.  For safety reasons, tasting salons were closed completely for extended periods, forcing wineries to seek alternative tasting options.  It also forced those companies to reach out to their membership, offer deals that would have never seemed possible before and in some cases, sit on inventory.

Of course, the tangible costs associated with a wine tasting.  With most of our tastings, we had 4 - 8 wines (which means 4-8 glasses to clean per person), a custom tasting menu, charcuterie, a host or hostess and the costs associated with set up and tear down of the tasting.  Is that worth $50 per person?  In our eyes, it's a resounding YES!

Support Your Local Wineries
Need we say more?  Show them some love.

So the $64,000 question then is "Is there a way to avoid wine tasting fees"?  The super-simple, quick and sarcastic answer is yes;  don't go to a winery!  I know that's not the answer you were looking for, but it is very honest.  However, if you are going to visit your favorite or soon-to-be-favorite wine slinger, understand the expectations before you go.  Often times, wineries will be clear on their wine tasting/wine purchase policy.  For example, for every "X" number of bottles that you purchase during your visit, they will waive the tasting fee.  

What we found out in our personal experience was that nearly every winery we visited waived the tasting fee for us if we purchased wine.  There was never a "set amount" discussed, and truthfully, our group of six purchased several thousands of dollars total at 8 of the 9 wineries.  The only exception was the pre-paid $45 tasting fee for one of our visits, and that winery was a flop.  Maybe a major source of their income is from tasting fees because people aren't buying the wines?  Just a thought.

The proverb "A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted" never held truer words that in wine country.  But the memories you take from a trip like this will last you forever, or at least until the next time.  I compare a trip to Napa and Sonoma like a trip to Las Vegas.  Stay with me here!  The $3.99 buffet is comparable to the $5 wine tasting.  They are unicorns.  They don't exist any longer.  Traveling to wine country is not cheap and quality wine is worth every penny!  If you don't want to pay, stay home and drink wine from a box.

Trips To Wine Country Are Pricey
Your trip to wine country will leave you with wonderful memories and a lighter wallet.





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