Since I moved to Napa Valley more than a decade ago, I’ve seen many changes. One of the more dramatic, has been in the tasting room. Gone are the days when you could roll into a winery unannounced to swirl and sip, oftentimes for free, alongside tourists who stood gobsmacked by the Napa Valley lifestyle. A time when casual was “in” and public tasting rooms were the norm.
Today is not such a time. Instead many tasting rooms are marked by exorbitant fees, flashy décor, and over the top experiences, which split our valley between two dramatically different worlds. On the one side exists the authentic Napa Valley tasting experiences, which are more understated and artisanal. The same wineries that are now forced to compete with elite tastings at mega wineries, bent on catering to the well-heeled set—which leaves me wondering where the Napa Valley tasting room experience is headed. Will exclusive reserve tastings and highfalutin experiences continue to take over the tasting stratosphere? Or, will a new movement emerge?
While no one can fully predict the future, the annual Wine Business Monthly/Silicone Valley Bank Insights to Successful Consumer Wine Sales Survey (WBM/SVB) may answer these questions, and more. For the past five years, the trend has been moving toward more “by appointment” tastings, with Napa leading the charge. Partially due to Napa County wine regs, which limit the number of public wineries. But also, because “appointment only” wineries yield higher sales according to the study. The 2014 survey showed that service and style of tasting mattered to the tune of $294, the average purchase for appointment-only wineries, where as “public” winery purchases hovered at $70.
In 2018, among more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley, 290 were by appointment only, with 90 accepting walk-ins, and a mere 14 that offered comp tasting with a purchase. Napa has been a power player according to the WBM/SVB survey, with average per person tasting room wine purchases at $316, when the industry average was $143.
Not surprisingly, Napa has also been the leader in tasting room fees, which in the 2019 survey averaged $64 for reserve tastings (Sonoma $40, Paso Robles at $32). But such tactics may come at a cost. For the same period, Napa saw not only a decline in average tasting room wine purchases (Sonoma and Paso Robles saw gains), Napa also experienced a decline in visitation for the past three years. Meanwhile, industry visitation in general is up, with emerging regions including Oregon and Washington seeing strong gains.
The 2019 survey revealed another trend of interest relative to tasting experience “type.” While the 2014 survey saw a rise in popularity for formal seated tastings, this year’s data reported that many wineries are reverting back to a more casual model. But the most interesting reveal of all showed that 27 percent (up 4 percent from 2018) of survey respondents are switching to offer both by-appointment and walk-ins.
Only time will tell if trends on the tasting trail will shift forward, backward or to somewhere else entirely. As for this Gen X scribe, I remain partial to those authentic winery experiences, like the ones I wrote about in some of my earliest articles for NorthBay Biz. When tastings felt more hands-on, and less assembly line. My first, entitled, Mountain Men, featured the burly brothers of Smith-Madrone Winery, who fled the valley floor in favor of growing grapes on Spring Mountain in 1971. In that first interview, we sat on folding chairs overlooking a quieter valley as we sipped wines made straight off the property, including the 2009 Riesling. The wine that brothers Charlie and Stu Smith became known for, when their first vintage (1977), was entered into the Gault-Millau Wine Olympics in Paris in 1979, where it won top honor as Best Riesling. The experience was as no frills as it gets—but the wines, were anything but ordinary.
Another one of my earliest pieces, was about Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena. Run by husband-wife duo Layla and Robert Fanucci, whose fourth-generation winemaking roots date back to the 1900s. Robert and son David still use the same Old-World redwood wine bats and press that Robert’s grandfather Guido Ragghianti once used. Layla continues to lead personal tastings of their award-winning wines, which include a purview of her art studio out back, where she paints world-renowned works of art, in between tastings.
In both instances, the charms that once were, still exist today, right on down to the quality wines and the people who pour them. Each a subtle nod to Napa’s past and the possibilities of its future. Regardless of shifting trends, one thing is clear, there may never exist a one-size-fits-all tasting experience to pacify the multigenerational masses, instead, diversity reigns.
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