Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Are Tasting Room Fees On The Way?

According to an article in the fall issue of Wine Press Northwest, fees to taste wine have become the norm in California winery tasting rooms. Is this the future for tasting rooms at Washington wineries, too? So far, Washington is almost free of tasting fees, except a few wineries are charging tasting fees for reserve wines and during some event weekends. Will tasting fees become a way of life as wine tourism in Washington State keeps growing?

I have been in retail now for almost 30 years, and one thing I've learned is that while retail items change, customers do not. I believe in customer service; we cannot sell our products without it. Yet over the past six months I have noticed there seems to be an increase in abuse of wine-tasting etiquette. This behavior can even make the best retailer wince as wine tasters walk through the doors.

My personal opinion is I hope we do not see Walla Walla wineries start charging tasting fees, but if and when they do I think I will understand why. It's not about making extra money. Down in California, tasting room fees were born because many browsers considered free wine tastings as a free "Happy Hour."

Who are these "Happy Hour" people? Are they happy? You bet they are happy --- and sometimes they can be very aggressive with rubber tongues. It can be a large group (six or more) who show up just before closing time and want to drink and socialize with each other. Often by the time they visit the last winery in a day of wine-tasting they are buzzed. This isn't just my experience; tasting-room colleagues from other wineries tell me they all see the same behavior. And just when you think you have heard or seen it all, someone surprises you. There was the man who complained that we didn't pour him a half glass of wine and the taste we did pour was not enough (it was at least worth four sips - enough to understand the nuances of the wine), but he also forgot what wine varietal we did pour for him.

Many the aggressive customer been irritated with me because I didn't have every vintage and varietal of wine that we sell opened for him or her to taste. Wineries do reserve the right to the wines they want to open for free tasting. Besides, that right cuts down on costs and those costs the winery can give back to their customers. In fact, the perfect example of cutting costs and giving back to the customers is not charging a tasting fee. Hey, think about it - where else can you taste something for free before you purchase? There isn't a lot of places.

Another thing to consider after a day of wine tasting is your taste buds. I consider myself a fairly savvy wine taster. My palette has been educated (that sounds snooty, doesn't it?) and sometimes after I have tasted more than six wines, even my palette can become fatigued.

Large groups can be too busy socializing to even listen to the tasting room attendents talk about a particular wine that is being poured. Recently, a woman in our tasting room leaned against the tasting room bar with her back towards me while I talked about the wine I was pouring. With her back to my face, she reached her arm behind her with glass in hand and tapped on the bar for me to pour her another glass of wine. She was too busy visiting with her friends to even find out what wine I was pouring for her. I could have poured from the spit bucket and she would not have known.

If you would like to be a good guest at a winery, the rules are pretty basic and not a lot to remember:

1. Be conscientious about your intake of alcohol. Learn to spit or pace yourself when visiting wineries. Remember: your objective in wine tasting is discover a great new wine or learn more about wines -- not to get drunk for free.

2. Don't wear fragances (yes, men - that also means you and your aftershaves) or use lotions with strong fragrances while wine tasting. Especially if it is a fragrance that we use every day, our noses become somewhat immune to the strength of the fragrance so we have a tendency to spray more fragrance on. Fragrances interfere not only with your own senses of smell and taste but also with those of the people around you. Nobody wants their wine glass of aromatic Syrah to taste like Ralph Lauren Polo or Evyan White Shoulders. The same goes for smokers -- try to leave about 20 minutes between your last cigarette and your first taste of wine.

I would like to see more education produced by wineries and wine alliances for wine lovers. And we could learn a thing or two from our southern neighbors -- California has this tasting room thing down; they have been doing it for years. The wineries in Washington are mere babies when it comes to managing the tasting-room environment. This time, instead of following California and applying tasting fees, let's learn from them and work on tasting-room etiquette so we can avoid those tasting fees. I want to continue to serve every customer that comes in our tasting room the same way I always have, but as a tasting-room attendent I need a little help from my customers. Let's make visiting wineries a positive experience for everyone.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Rule #3: Whatever you do, do not drink from the spit bucket.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you have to put up with all that crap, you damned well should be charging a tasting fee!

Or, to cut costs, do pour from the spit bucket. If it was good enough for Miles...

Bradley Cooper, Winemaker said...

We all pay tasting fees. Sometimes they're up front, with a little sign and conditions and other times they're buried in the price of the wine. Either way, the winery is covering the cost of the 'free' samples. I say have a couple free items then tag them for the high end stuff if they're not qualified buyers.