Between Two Bottles (B2B): Wine Tastings – To Charge or Not to Charge?
One feature of Midwest wineries that sets them apart from wineries in California is that many offer free wine tastings. On the west coast, in Napa or Sonoma, you usually get charged at least $15 just to sample a few meager samples of vino. For understandable, but possibly misguided reasons, the tradition of a free wine tasting in our region could be changing.
In my humble experience as a bartender at Belvoir Winery, very few people who do a free wine tasting leave without either having a glass of wine, buying a bottle or two, or at least tipping the bartender. I assumed free tastings were the norm across the Midwest so I was surprised during a visit to Hermann, Missouri where the top wineries charge for wine tastings. Paid tastings have been the norm in Hermann for a while, although some wineries have divided their wines into two categories so you can still taste a couple of them for free.
There’s obviously a logic to charging. As Midwest wineries become more popular, larger numbers of bus tours or partying groups like bachelorette parties in hired limousines (rarely bachelor parties it seems) are arriving en masse in tasting rooms across the region intent on drinking the free tastings and not much else. A staff member at one prominent Missouri winery explained that the reason they now charge for tastings is because too many of these bigger groups would come through, only interested in drinking for free, and few would buy glasses or bottles of wine. Also, with improving wines that can retail for near $30, wineries found they were sacrificing too much of their good stuff to customers who’s only interest was to drink for free. Charging for tastings would be a way of ensuring their ‘good stuff’ was drunk by customers who would appreciate it.
Fair points. The problem now is that these wineries have lost some of that ‘good feeling’ that comes from offering customers a free tasting. The easiest way to relax and welcome winery visitors (and put them in the mood to have a drink and buy wine!) is to offer them a free tasting. In my experience, customers (from bachelorettes to serious drinkers) usually respond to this welcome by taking the free tasting, tipping, buying a glass and often a bottle. Wineries that charge for tastings no longer have this seductive weapon in their customer service arsenal. It can also makes Midwest wineries seem more commercial, more like Napa.
Arguably, rather than customers, the ones hit hardest by the wine tasting charge are the staff. After paying for a wine tasting at one establishment, I found I forgot to leave a tip. In fact, the act of leaving a tip was replaced by paying this wine tasting charge. So the money that might have gone towards a tip, now pays for the tasting and the customer may also be left less inclined to buy a glass or bottle.
I felt sorry for the staff at wineries that charge for tastings and I’m very glad we don’t charge. Tips at the winery where I work easily exceed the hourly wage I earn.
At some wineries in Hermann, charging for tastings wasn’t the only thing that took me by surprise. A Henry Ford style division of tasting room labor had also taken place.
Allow me to explain: at the winery where I work — and many across the Midwest — when you do a tasting and then buy a bottle, you’re doing all that with one member of the winery staff. At some of the bigger wineries in Hermann, you taste at one counter after paying your fee, then you have to go somewhere else, like the winery shop, to buy your bottles. This shuffling from person to person must also reduce the tips received by wine tasting staff.
It also depersonalizes the experience for the customer and makes their visit to a local winery more like a visit to a supermarket. I can’t help but think the whole experience for a customer is so much better if they are greeted, served a tasting and sold glasses of wine and bottles by the same person.
But I do get why a growing number of wineries are charging for tastings and organizing their tasting rooms in a more ‘industrial’ fashion. In some ways it’s a good sign — these wineries are clearly popular! I’m just not sure that charging for tastings and converting the local winery experience into something more like a liquor store with a tasting room makes good economic sense. It can also have a negative impact on staff and customers.
See Related Story: Are Wineries Neglecting an Important Message?
Danny Wood is an editor of Midwest Wine Press and works part-time at Belvoir Winery in Liberty, Missouri.
Keep in mind there also might be state and/or local laws that limit how much alcohol can be given away. In the state of IL, the law allows three tastings of one ounce each. Anything different is a violation of the IL Liquor Control Act.
That’s an excellent point. State and local laws do restrict free tastings, yet we have all seen the customer who is just looking to drink for free.
I plan on charging for tasting when I open a tasting room in 2015, but I feel it can be managed in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the experience. Also having to go to a different person/location to buy a bottle seems like a good way to undermine the salesmanship of your tasting room staff (who are there first and foremost to sell wine) by not allowing them to close the sale.
The first three years we gave free tastings to all who showed up. We were forced to change to a policy where the tastings were free if you purchased $25.00 worth of merchandise. We’re in a college town and our winery is a great place to start the 21st birthday party and then on to the bars. During that first three years I do not remember getting a tip. Our winery the staff is the owners 90% of the time. I always offer to give a free tour of the winery to new visitors. We are veterians of over 400 winery tours on three continents and started our winery because the midwest residents should have the pleasure of the winery experiance as it is in other countries. Since I started charging if the customer does not make a purchase, I have seen the tips increase five fold.
Here in Lodi, CA where fifty tasting rooms now populate the local landscape, you get both opinions from owners on the subject of fees for tasting. When we first opened ours in 2007, I agreed with Danny’s point of view and tasting was free. We’ve since gone the other way, mostly to avoid abuse by large groups, but our policy of “no charge for tasting with a purchase of one bottle per couple” also encourages people to buy. After all, this is a business and selling is what we need to do. I also think our $10 per person fee for tasting communicates that the wine the customer consumes by sampling has value and that their experience here at Heritage Oak is worth something. The reality is that people come, have a great time, and buy. Maybe once every couple of months someone complains about the fee. I honestly believe that this is not an issue here in our area.
Thanks for your perceptive comments James I, James II and Tom. best Danny (using Mark’s login)
We have always charged for a tasting if over 5 wines and the customer receives a monogrammed wine glass. So they do receive something of value for the fee besides or wine. If the customer just wants to taste up to 5 wines, there is no charge. This has worked very well for us. We have had no complaints. Large groups over 10 and bus tours must pay five dollars to reduce abuse. Danny is not an owner of a winery, I believe his perspective is somewhat clouded when considering the bottom line, with all do respect.
In Kansas, state law does not allow us to charge for tastings. Each winery sets its own rules about charging for group tastings, often providing a logo glass or crackers and cheese with the tasting. Most visitors do buy and there is an occasional tip.
I have been in the wine business in various capacities for over 30 years and have seen the change from free tastings to wineries charging for tastings. Back in the old days, Michigan wineries needed to give free tastings to attract people to try their products, many of which were of marginal quality. Wine quality has improved by orders of magnitude over the decades so there is an entire tourism industry associated with wineries – tours, weddings, bachelorette parties, group tours etc. It’s what we have been working to develop for all those decades! I have had my own tasting room now for 3 years in St. Joseph, MI. The first year we offered free tastings and had a number of groups taste, tip very handsomely and then leave. Our staff loved it because they kept the tips – we did too when we were working – but the bottom line is those folks did not help the business. They drank wine, chatted with the help and then left. We offer well trained staff in our tasting room who can discuss the wines and provide entertainment for the guest and we pay more than other tasting rooms to retain good people. In other words we offer hospitality and that is worth something. We started charging $5 to taste and waived the fee for anyone purchasing at least a bottle of wine. Before we started we surveyed our customers and most said they were happy to pay for knowledgeable staff to lead them through a tasting of quality wines. I do agree that our industry is still young enough that, if we charge for all tastings, we may miss selling a bottle of wine. That’s why we waive the fee with purchase. I am contemplating raising the bar to a 2 bottle purchase, however, given the ever increasing costs of doing business. We charge everyone to taste when a large group comes in because we have to add extra staff to handle them. That said we get many great comments from our groups on Facebook about what a great time they had and how much they like our wines. I do offer a 5% discount on wine purchases to large groups that pay the tasting fee.
I believe the fees are here to stay and they are part of a successful industry. People who want good entertainment are willing to pay for it and we should not be embarrased to ask for money to defray our costs when entertaining those guests.
Thanks for your comments Galen and Pamela – and well put Dave. Your grape experience over many years and more recently at White Pine Winery puts you in an authoritative position to make a compelling case. So thanks for your case history! all the best Danny (using Mark’s login)
Thanks for stating what we do at our winery also.
I recently visited Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin, and they have a very unique 3-tier approach in their tasting room…..a number of their wines(presumably the least expensive) can be sampled for free. But they charge a nominal fee for sampling their other wines. Seems like a very logical approach.
The Midwest is known for their hospitality. Offering free tasting samples is our way of showing that we are a friendly and inviting winery. But, with that said, being a small winery we cannot afford to give away a lot of wine. So, we offer 5 free tasting with a variety of 15 different wines to choose from. Most people will find a wine of their liking in this variety of samples and if not maybe I’ll pour a couple more! 🙂 We like to keep our customer happy!