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.