Tasting Fees Skyrocket in Wine Country

Tasting rooms are open, but it's going to cost you more to try the wines.
© Visit California | Tasting rooms are open, but it's going to cost you more to try the wines.
The price of a tasting has almost doubled in Napa and Sonoma in the past five years.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 25-May-2021

If you haven't been to a California winery for a tasting visit in a while, you might experience sticker shock. The average price for a standard tasting fee has almost doubled in five years and is now $58 in Napa County and $30 in Sonoma County.

This was one of the most striking figures released today from Silicon Valley Bank's 2021 Direct-to-Consumer Wine Survey Report. The report is based on self-reported data from 460 US wineries. The majority (69 percent) are in California; only 35 (7.6 percent) are outside the West Coast.

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The survey lists the average standard tasting fee in the US as $25, but that is brought up by Napa and Sonoma, as only those regions average more than that. Paso Robles, Oregon and Santa Barbara have average tasting fees between $21 and $24. Washington state is the bargain region for tasting: high-quality wines with an average fee of $15.

Many wineries also reported having a higher "reserve tasting" fee, which averages $90 in Napa and $50 in Sonoma. Once again, Washington state is the value play, with average reserve tasting fees of just $20.

"It's about approachability and accessibility," Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, told Wine-Searcher. "From downtown Seattle, in 30 minutes you can be in Woodinville and taste wine from more than 100 wineries. The most important thing you can do when you're trying to establish a region or winery is to get the wine in people's mouths and let them experience what Washington tastes like."

Outside of Woodinville, don't expect to walk into wineries anymore and taste whenever you want. In 2019, 56.1 percent of tasting-room customers were walk-ins. But this year, wineries expect that figure to be cut in half, as they schedule more sit-down appointments in advance. More than 40 percent of wineries expect to hold tastings only by appointment this year.

"Over the past 20 years, wineries have moved from walk-in to a by-appointment model only when forced by local regulations," the report says. "Covid-19 restrictions forced wineries into by-appointment in 2020. From conversations, we believe when fully open the majority will retain a by-appointment option or remain fully by-appointment."

Only one major US wine region – Santa Barbara County – actually reported more average monthly visitors so far this year compared to 2019. Napa and Sonoma Counties are seeing less than half the average number of visitors that they did in 2019, according to the survey.

The virtual reality

Those two behemoths of wine tasting are also lagging so far in another measure in 2021: amount spent per visitor. In most wine regions, people coming to tasting rooms are spending more than in 2019. In Oregon, they are spending 66 percent more, the biggest jump of any major region.

But while tasting room visitors are still spending a lot of money in Napa – $319 on average – that is up less than 1 percent from 2019. And Sonoma County tasting room visitors are actually spending 10 percent less than they did pre-pandemic. Could those high tasting fees be making an impact?

The survey also asked about virtual tastings. If you feel like you have been inundated by wineries asking you to buy a tasting kit and give up an afternoon to open three expensive wines at the same time, you are not alone. More than 75 percent of the wineries surveyed ran digital tastings during the pandemic, and 28 percent of them did more than one per week.

Consumers like email from wineries: about 37 percent of winery emails are opened, which seems high for sales pitches, and 14 percent of winery emails get a click through to the winery website. The smaller the winery, the more likely people are to open its email: about 40 percent of emails from wineries under 10,000 cases per year are opened, compared to less than one-third of emails from larger wineries.

Two-thirds of wineries say they remove inactive email addresses from their email lists at least once per year. But 22 percent of wineries say they don't remove email addresses from their lists. I don't know about your own inbox but, to me, that explains a lot.

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