Tasting Fees and the Resulting Online Comments

Tasting fees, and the online comments that result from them, are becoming an “issue” here in wine country. Each year it seems more wineries start to realize how much wine they give away and how much customers are coming to expect (or vociferously demand) free wine to taste. I’d like to just go over a few things that I’ve noticed lately, both as a consumer and as a professional currently working at a winery that happens to charge for tastings.

I currently work at a wine shop that happens to charge tasting fees. There are 3 different tasting options at 3 different prices and the fees pay for the wines and the wine professionals to pour it for you, tell you about the wines, and answer any of your questions. This all happens while you sit relaxed at your own table just like in a restaurant. The total amount of wine poured for one of the options is 12 ounces (6 wines @ 2 ounces each).

The previous winery I worked for did not charge for tastings at all. The tasting room had a much higher volume of customers and it was logistically difficult to charge tasting fees with the wine shop layout that we had. Standing up at the 20-foot-long bar, customers could taste 5 or 6 of the 10 wines we offered and the pours were much smaller – about 3/4 of an ounce (3 ounces of wine total). When asked if there was a tasting fee, I usually just asked them to smile. They also offered other special experiences that did cost money and customers had lots of choices.

Both of these scenarios are perfectly acceptable and effective, but very different, experiences. In general, wineries over the years that I’ve visited have generally been more than generous with their wine samples. Wine isn’t inexpensive and going into a wine shop and getting free samples has been a real treat that I’m always grateful for. It’s not like I can expect to get samples of any menu item at a restaurant or anything so I appreciate it when I can try things that I’ve never had the opportunity to try before. That makes it a special occasion especially if it includes a variety that I’ve never had previously. I have paid for tastings as well and it’s never bothered me personally wether or not that fee is taken off the price of a bottle or not. As I see it, it’s just business and wineries are businesses that have to make ends meet too. Providing that experience can become a costly endeavour especially if the winery has lofty goals when it comes to creating their vision of a perfect experience. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that when you visit a wine shop, you are looking for an experience rather than to simply buy a  bottle of wine. With a few small exceptions, you can pretty well buy any wines you want at a liquor or VQA store so what’s the big deal about buying it at the winery?

I believe that it’s the experience. It’s always about the experience. It’s an experience to buy wine at a winery. That’s why people go.

A lot of businesses (and some wineries) take the approach of “the customer is always right”. They bend over backwards to meet the stated (and sometimes anticipated) needs of the customer. Honestly, I’ve worked at a winery where I’m pretty sure if the customer demanded a cigar and hooker, the winery would do what it could to supply one or both in a timely manner. It’s a mentality that comes from the hospitality industry, where every step is taken to make sure that the guest (not a customer, a guest) has the best time possible no matter what.

Other wineries take the opposite approach and make absolutely no effort to make the customer feel comfortable or welcomed in any way. Taste the wines, buy your wine, thanks for coming, good-bye, who’s next? No real experience, little chit-chat, or chance to learn about the wines in any meaningful way means that the customer’s experience is shallow and truncated at best. Unless the wine is unbelievably amazing and universally praised, very few people will come away from a visit like that enticed to buy the wines, share their experiences, or recommend others visit the same winery. There are more than a few of those kinds of wineries and I’ve been to a lot of them. Honestly, they don’t bother me personally but it makes me annoyed that some great wine is going to be overlooked because of an awful wine shop experience. It’s the winery’s loss because they are leaving money on the table that way and not taking advantage of a potentially great opportunity with their customers.

Most wineries in BC right now are somewhere between both of these extremes. Some wineries (large and small) are all about service and creating an experience of some kind. Others (again, large and small) care less for that. I can think of two wineries of vastly different sizes offhand that both get a resounding “SUCK” for their wine shop experience. When a winery doesn’t meet my expectations, I move on. When I am asked to name wineries that I like, I name the ones that I’ve enjoyed and I simply leave out the ones that I don’t enjoy. It’s that simple. There’s almost no point in slamming a winery because all wineries make something that is special to somebody and who am I to rag on that? I don’t have the same taste in wine as Calli or Amber – they might love a winery that I’m not a fan of. Does that mean it’s not good wine? It’s just not for me, that’s all. I don’t like Mars bars – I’m more of a Snickers guy. So what?

What I don’t do is pour negative comments out onto the internet for all the world to see. If a winery has a tasting fee that I wasn’t expecting, I can choose to pay it or I don’t. I have that choice of my own free will because I am an adult. If I pay and the wines suck, I move on. Voicing negative comments online is pretty much like a toddler screaming that they want ice cream. It’s annoying to listen to and no amount of screaming is really going to get you what you want. Yes, tasting fees at some wineries can be an “owey”. Boo hoo. You are (or you should be legally) adults if you’re able to drink wine so start acting like it. Wineries don’t owe you anything anymore than a restaurant owes you a free tasting of each course before you decide to order it or not. And if all you can afford is a Honda, don’t try to test drive a Ferrari and complain about it being too expensive. It just makes you look like an idiot.

Over the last few years, with the rise of websites like Trip Advisor, I’ve witnessed customers demand (almost shouting at us) to taste our wine for free. If they do pay for a tasting, it’s very likely that they’ll write scathing comments about how rude the staff were because the tasting “wasn’t worth it” or that the experience was “tainted” somehow by the tasting fees. Of course, this negative experience will ruin the taste of the wine and so even the best wine in the world will never make up for the fact that this customer isn’t going to get what they expect out of the experience. My cynical side says that these customers just want free wine but I know that there are people out there who just don’t want to take a chance on a wine that they are not familiar with and I think that’s valid. However the comments that are posted online (pro or con) are generally not very constructive, so what’s the point?

There is no point to this kind of criticizing but the problem isn’t just with the customer. It takes two to tango. What are a customer’s expectations when visiting a winery’s wine shop? If the expectations are met, then the customer has a good time. If not, they have a bad time. The wineries that disappoint are the ones where the customer’s expectations (realistic or not) are not met and the problem that wineries have is how to make sure that they meet the most customer’s expectations effectively. That’s not an easy task because it is pretty well impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

If you are going to go wine touring, I strongly suggest that you be open to many different experiences. Each winery is really a representation of the person in charge (winery owners, wine makers, etc) and because everyone is different, so will the wineries’ experiences be. If all wine shops were the same, wine touring would be boring and predictable. If all wines were exactly the same, it would also be boring. It would be like cola. Nobody goes cola touring because cola in Kelowna is exactly the same as cola in Miami. The “hints of caramel” wouldn’t be hints – they’d be bludgeons and they’d be the same all over the world from bottle to bottle with no variation at all.

Wine isn’t boring like cola and I think most wine lovers enjoy the excitement of those differences and variations, even if there are tasting fees. And if your experience just doesn’t add up to your expectations, just tell your friends in person. Nothing constructive will come from posting your own ignorance online.

~Luke

21 thoughts on “Tasting Fees and the Resulting Online Comments

  1. Pingback: The Oral Traditions of Wine | Wine Country BC

  2. Different types of wineries need different strategies but generally I support reasonable tasting fees that are waived upon purchase. I believe that our little industry will never realize its potential unless wineries invest heavily in the tourist values of their tasting rooms and properties — and that takes money.

    • Well that’s a very positive way to view it! It is really an investment, isn’t it? In general I agree and I know that Naramata wineries in particular have been going down this route with tasting fees. And if customers are expecting it then there’s no surprises and their expectations are met. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Pingback: Oregon wine harvest prospects, ‘reserve’ wines, tasting fee controversy: Wednesday Wine Roundup

  4. I disagree with a few of your premises. First, there are people that go and taste wine who are actually looking to purchase wine for their own consumption. Saying that I could simply buy it at my local store is a bit of a red herring. Maybe I could buy it locally (likely not), but I certainly could not taste it first. After all, why do wineries have tasting rooms? To sell directly to the consumer. It is in their interest to do so since they will make considerably more money per bottle than if they sold it to a restaurant or a distributor.

    There is my second point. When someone buys a bottle direct from the winery, yes they are paying roughly the same price as if they bought it in a store, but the winery pockets ALL the money. The difference between the wholesale price and the retail price should go to paying for the tasting room staff and the “experience” in my opinion.

    Why would a winery not want to try their wine before they purchase it? Do car dealers charge their potential customers for a test drive? After all, there are costs involved there: gas, depreciation, paying the salesperson, etc. If you had to pay for a test ride, would you not be offended? In every retail industry there are many of the costs you indicate, but I can’t name another industry that charges for testing their product.

    Sure, by trying the wine, the wine is consumed and can’t be resold (like a car). I get that, which is why I am happy to pay for tastings when I do not end up buying. But not crediting the tasting fee with a purchase is just bad business to me. In fact those that do not waive fees are more interested in just that–the business (i.e., maximizing profits) instead of providing an “experience”.

    • Thanks for commenting! I really like reading your blog btw.

      I understand that people go to wineries to purchase wine for their own use and that there are some very special wines out there. This post is, as most of the articles on my blog, focused entirely on the BC market which is a very new and almost entirely domestic driven market. 90% of the wines available in wine shops in BC are in fact easily available at VQA stores (a special chain of stores that only sell BC wine at winery prices) and government stores that have been actively promoting BC for the past 2 decades. The world of wine is a little more contained here.
      Test driving cars was something that I thought of including in the article as a counterpoint but didn’t because it was comparing apples to oranges. As you pointed out in your comment, wine is a consumable and cars are not. The cost of fuel, depreciation, and (commission-based sales) labour are a significantly smaller percentage of the total sticker cost of the item in question. Bill Eggert from Fairview Cellars posted a comment on this article on my own facebook page saying that he gives away “somewhere between 7 and 10% of my production through the tasting room, charities and various pouring events.” Based on their total car production, that’s a lot of gas for GM to be giving away in test drives and at the end of it, they are still left with the vehicles. I’ve seen it happen myself from behind the bar at wineries where I’ve worked. A family of 10 comes in, ‘samples’ the equivalent of a bottle of wine between them and then buys 2 bottles. I’ve seen a winery on a single busy day pour 10 cases of wine as samples which is more wine than most people will consume in a year. That’s no nothing.

      Chocolatiers, ice cream stores, delis, and other food-based producers were industries that I considered adding to this article but didn’t for the sake of brevity. I know they give samples frequently but I don’t know how often they do or what percentage of their production accounts for this. I’m pretty sure that customers don’t go crying to mommy-Trip Advisor when they don’t get to sample the Rocky Road. The point of the article was to show that customers’ expectations for their wine shop experience and the wineries’ own (sometimes feeble) attempts to create an experience are out of step with each other. It’s the experiences that I’m interested in here and how the consumers’ and the wineries’ views on it seem to differ wildly. Some wineries go out of their way to create an experience and some don’t. Some consumers expect an experience, some just want to go shopping. Review websites aren’t constructive in any way but they can point out this discrepancy.

      And I agree with your first point that wineries receive the most amount of money from sales in their own wine shops so I believe it’s in their best interest to make sure that they help make their experience there a positive one. There’s nothing more disheartening than seeing an empty wine shop on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer.

      About your last point re: bad business. I’ve never really known a business that isn’t concerned ‘maximizing profits’ that has survived very long. Wineries are businesses that need to make a profit too, not just fun places to drink and have a party. I think that to scold them for being a big, greedy business is naïve when the profit margins on a bottle of wine (of any price point) are slim. The image of the large, ostentatious wineries probably doesn’t help the winery seem like they aren’t just rich people indulging in a trite little game of agriculture while the trust funds mature. In BC, a lot of them are farmers who have to make a living to keep their company afloat. And unlike GM, there’s no federal bailout packages to bring them back from the brink when they mess up.

      Thanks again for your thoughts! This topic has really struck a chord with industry here and I’m glad to have more consumers’ input on it.

      • Ah, but there is a fundamental difference between “maximizing profits” and “making a living”. No one wants to put anybody out of business, but we are not talking about an either/or concept here, it is a continuum. When wineries charge exorbitant fees for a tasting and do not offer to waive the fee with purchase, they, in my opinion, are taking advantage of the consumer. Why? Because they can–I see that as a money grab, nothing less, and when that happens they have breached the line between “making a living” and “maximizing profits”.

      • Yeah, that’s a very good point. I guess that will really be in the eye of the beholder. What is exorbitant to one person might be pocket change to another. When in university, I couldn’t believe that anyone would pay $15 for a bottle of wine and found that completely exorbitant when in fact it was simply out of reach of my finances at the time as a student. I’ve certainly spent more than that on a bottle of wine and I’m sure you have too. But I don’t see it as a money grab if a winery is paying wine professionals (sommeliers, etc) to sell their wines and charging a fee to help pay for those same professionals rather than hiring someone who knows or cares little about wine and simply reads the back of the label for me. (Sadly, this has actually happened to me – and they even charged for tastings there! Now that was a money grab.) There has to be a balance between the tasting fee and the quality of service that comes with it. I like to think that when a winery does something just for the money, it will be easy to spot. Maybe I’m wrong in that but it makes me aware of it whenever I visit a winery.

        Thanks for the great comments!

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  6. Good post with some great insider perspective. Most of the wineries that I’ve gone to do charge tasting fees, which I don’t mind. You are correct that I’m going just as much for the experience as I am for the wine. I do really appreciate it when the tasting fee can be put toward a wine purchase. I will almost always purchase a few bottles if I had a few that I liked.

    • Thanks for commenting Andrea! Does having a tasting fee mean that you will probably not buy as much wine (or any at all)? Will it make or break the sale if you can’t put that tasting fee towards a purchase? If a winery puts the tasting fee towards a purchase, they are essentially writing off the tasting altogether and taking a loss on it even if it is just one bottle. I’m really curious as to how people perceive tasting fees.

      • Good questions! When I’m visiting wine regions I typically check out tasting fees at wineries before I pick the ones that I’m going to visit. I’m more likely to pass up the ones that won’t put the fee towards a purchase. I do think it is fair if the purchase is a minimum number of bottles or purchase amount. If I liked the wine I’ll almost always buy the minimum number of bottles to have my tasting fee applied to the purchase, so it’s actually smart marketing on their part!

      • Thanks for replying! If I may follow that up with another question – How much will the tasting fees influence your choice to visit a winery or not? Are wineries that have tasting fees limiting themselves in effect because potential customers are steering clear in advance?

      • Tasting fees definitely have some influence on the wineries I choose to visit. I’m more willing to pay a fee if I’m familiar with the winery or I know that there is a beautiful tasting room/view. Otherwise, if I know nothing about the wineries I am considering I’ll probably lean towards visiting the ones with less expensive tasting fees or the ones who will put the fee toward a purchase.

  7. Well said! Very true, Sometimes guests makes it awkward when they try to leave without paying or they act surprised about tasting fees after I explained it to them… As if 3 ounces of wine and our time is not worth $3 dollars. I mostly just brush it off but I’m not the one who’s invested a bajillion dollars in to the business. Hopefully your post will enlighten.

    • That is awkward, Chelsea! $3 for a tasting fee really isn’t that much in my opinion. I always compare it to what a typical restaurant would be able to offer for a similar price for a 5oz. glass of wine. At that rate, 5oz for $5 is a pretty good rate and most restaurants charge way more than that for the premium wines by the glass so that’s a pretty good deal if you think about it. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Reblogged this on vinesanddesigns and commented:
    A few people have recently asked me to write some posts on tasting room etiquette as well as the subject of tasting fees. However, Luke from Wine Country BC beat me to the tasting fee subject and I think he has covered it beautifully so I would like to share it with you.

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