The wine tasting excursion remained relatively unchanged for decades when consumers would drive to a winery and sally up to a bar. Depending on how busy the server was at the moment, the consumer may or may not get additional information about the wine, choose to buy a bottle or perhaps a case, and then move on to the next winery. A typical day of wine tasting could consist of visiting five or six wineries, and sometimes more. Over the past decade or so, however, this one-size-fits-all approach to wine tasting has slowly changed and consumers, especially serious wine aficionados, are no longer satisfied to roam with the masses moving through Wine Country. Wineries have taken note, and tasting rooms are now often built with an emphasis on providing personalized experiences to guests.
There are several trends affecting how winery-tasting rooms are designed today, but the most significant change is that a tasting is now being perceived as an overall experience, rather than just tasting wine. The space needs to reflect that mindset. In a competitive marketplace, with hundreds of wineries in the region producing excellent wine, producers have turned to what can give them that extra edge—that memory of an experience a visitor can take home with them and share with friends and family. Essentially, create a deep connection with their brand.
For many wineries, that connection starts with their first impression to ensure a visitor feels welcomed from the start.
“Visitor experience seems to be perceived in a different way than it was in the previous 30 years,” says Michael Guthrie, owner of Michael Guthrie & Co. Architects, which recently redesigned Healdsburg-based Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery. “We’ve seen a change in the last 10 years, number one being an inclusion of the visitor from the moment they drive up; greeting them, sometimes before they even enter into the tasting room, and trying to engage them in a way that’s different from what we’re used to seeing,” says Guthrie. “Previously the visitor walked up to a bar. There was some standing room and maybe stools at the bar, with the server on the opposite side of the bar, and the server would take care of the visitor over that divide. In recent years, we’ve realized it’s more of a cocktail-lounge relationship. Engaging a visitor in a lounge chair, couch or table seating, you can see how right from the beginning it sets up a completely different relationship with server and visitor.”
In a seated tasting, a host or server that is knowledgeable about the wine varietals, terroir, and other winery specifics, has a greater opportunity to share that information within an intimate atmosphere that relaxed accommodations provide.
“One of the trends we’re seeing now is providing seated tastings,” says Don Davis, director of sales and marketing at MacRostie Winery and Vineyards. “We want to make sure our guests are on vacation—whether that means they’re on vacation for a week from the other side of the country, or they’re on vacation for the afternoon from San Francisco. It’s important to note that we view everybody who visits us as being on vacation, and vacation time is precious. We want to make sure that when people are taking valuable time to visit us, they’re in an environment that’s relaxed and doesn’t feel rushed, that’s comfortable and beautiful and with a mix of education and fun. One aspect we also consider is to remember that they’re visiting the winery to hear about our wines, as well as to enjoy the friends they’re with,” he adds. “Finding that balance is important, too.”
While seated tastings are not inherently new, they were primarily held in special rooms and at certain times. MacRostie wanted to have seated tastings to scale, with everyone who visits the winery receiving that special service and attention. To that end, they separated the tasting room and outside spaces into separate areas. Each space has its own energy and feel. Not only does this make for a cozy and intimate environment, it also ensures that repeat customers will have a different experience each time they visit.
“When we were building and creating the vision for the space, we knew it was important that no matter where anyone was seated, it still felt like an intimate, special place even if there were 50 or 60 people there at the same time,” says Davis. “That’s why we created many different areas on the property. There are four distinct separate patios surrounding the estate house and another completely hidden area on the opposite end of the property under an old oak tree. Inside, there are multiple spaces, nooks and rooms. Even within a big room, the furniture is different in each area, so it feels different.”
It only makes sense that the more comfortable and special a visitor feels, the more time they spend at an establishment to taste, chat, linger and ultimately, buy more wine. While perhaps the volume of visitors tasting may decrease in one-on-one, seated tastings, volume of sales increase as well as club memberships.
“Something we’re finding is that consumers are spending more time at fewer wineries,” says Alyson White, direct to consumer manager at Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery. “They’re looking for a chance to get to know the brand and get to know the personnel. The reason we chose to have a more personalized experience is to give them that brand experience they’re looking for.”
According to White, while the average time visitors used to spend at wineries ranged from about half an hour to 45 minutes, today their guests spend an average of 90 minutes to two hours on site.
“We were looking for a welcoming and inviting atmosphere that people would want to stay and spend time in,” says White. “It used to be that you didn’t want to have chairs in the tasting room because people would camp out. So, this is also changing buying patterns and people are making better decisions by spending more time on site and with the staff.”
When a tasting room server can tailor the experience to an individual’s preferences and gauge the reactions to the wines being served, the total experience is customized. Sometimes that also includes pouring wines not on the list.
“Incremental wine purchases happen when you have a larger volume coming through your door,” says White. “But when you’re focused on catering that tasting and that experience to the individual, it builds the relationship. Once you have that relationship starting to build, then you start to see more purchases happening because they’ve made that brand connection and will oftentimes join the wine club more readily because they feel connected.”
Of course, managing seated tastings on a larger scale, and doing it well, requires an investment in staff. More staff is needed to offer the one-on-one service and dedication an elevated experience requires. Whereas in the past, one server could handle a bar full of people vying for their attention and time, the new seated set-up requires a server to only handle one-to-three tables at a time. Servers must be educated on the nuances of the wine and its history, and also have a feel for when a visitor wants to be educated, or when they’d rather spend more time with their friends and family.
“It’s critical to invest in staff,” says Davis. “We were aiming to bring a fine dining level service to wine country and Sonoma in an appropriate way. I say appropriate because it sounds formal and Sonoma is not formal. We based everything we were doing around providing the very best hospitality we could and the very best experience—that was something we could control and push ourselves to bring highest level hospitality to Wine Country.”
Flexibility is another important element that wineries look at in designing their tasting rooms and overall space. It’s not uncommon for wineries to host weddings, corporate events and other functions; the space needs to accommodate those modifications.
“Because there are so many different types of events that happen in the space—whether it’s different events or different types of tasting—the design generally has to accommodate the situation,” says Kristin Martin, owner of Kristin Martin Design, who has redesigned many wineries throughout Sonoma and Napa counties. “You might take four tables and turn them into a long table for 12 for a larger group. That’s the challenge—making sure that everything that goes in there is expandable and movable.”
At the same time, it’s challenging to make a winery space feel relaxed and inviting, while being modern without feeling corporate or industrial. One trend is to use more natural elements in their space such as natural woods.
“Aesthetically, there’s a lot of newer wineries that have popped up in Napa and Sonoma valley and there’s this progressive trend towards wine,” says Martin. “We embrace the approach of it being more casual and part of the everyday lifestyle rather than it being just this special occasion like a formal dining experience. We try to take the natural elements of the area and pull in those elements into the space, such as natural woods. At Beringer, we made an amazing large tasting table out of 100-year-old barrel wood—marrying history with modern day design. Many wineries have a ton of history and historical mansions on their property, so we need to be respectful of the architecture and history of a place, but make it more up to date,” says Martin. “It’s a combination of design where you have elements that should be there as well as more modern design trends.”
More and more wineries are also capitalizing on our temperate climate, beautiful topography, and stunning views by creating more outdoor spaces that encourage visitors to linger, such as lounge seating, fire pits and outdoor games. Also, visually bringing the outdoors in with large windows and glass sliding doors that can open completely to create a seamless indoor-outdoor space.
“For Gary Farrell, because there’s such a beautiful vista from their tasting room, the visitor’s room is oriented towards a view of the Russian River Valley,” says Guthrie. “You’re not just engaging visitors in the wine, you’re engaging them in the locale, and how that locale influences the types of wines they’re tasting. In Gary Farrell’s case, we eliminated glass windows that were above the counter height of the bar, and we brought the glass line all the way to the floor. We also included nano doors where the door completely goes out of the way so we have about a 12-foot-wide opening to the terrace and there is no interruption. On a nice day, the terrace becomes an extension of the interior tasting room.”
While seated tastings, tours, and personalized experiences may make it more difficult to just walk into a winery without a reservation and be served, as was the norm in the past, the tailored experience of feeling like a VIP will make a memorable and lasting impression.
“We’re lucky because so many wonderful experiences are available to us,” says Martin. “I would encourage people to look at the websites, plan ahead, and plan your time accordingly because there are some fun things to do and some amazing properties to visit.”
Strolling through beautifully landscaped gardens, passing by comfy outdoor lounge chairs under white umbrellas and seeing giant Jenga, corn hole, and bocce ball courts, you would think you’re in a luxury resort. But no, this is all part of the tour during HALL Winery’s “HALLmark Tour,” a chance to learn the history of the property, walk through the beautifully restored historic Bergfeld building, see HALL’s extensive art collection, and understand the winery’s philosophy of precision grape growing and wine making. Even during the conclusion of the tour, when our small tour group of six is treated to an immersive tasting experience inside a private room, the floor to ceiling windows that overlook trees, vineyards, and the Mayacamas Mountains, give visitors a sense of place and a new appreciation for the wine in their glasses.
We are excited to introduce the new BACA Zinfandel brand and launch the BACA Lounge. We have over-sized Jenga games, dice, and are always trying to keep experiences fresh at the winery,” says Lisa Covey, Manager of Public Relations for HALL, WALT and BACA Wines. “The tastings are more experiential, more engaging, more lifestyle centric. We’re looking for people to be engaged with the wine in unique ways, while remaining focused on our wine quality efforts with all of our messaging. Not just sip, pour, repeat. We want visitors to sit down, enjoy the stunning property that faces the Mayacamas Mountains, taste through our wines, and to learn something about us. We take a different approach to education through experiences, and a rock star wine education team at all three wine locations that are all extremely talented, informative and highly educated.”
HALL Wines has three different tasting rooms—HALL St. Helena, HALL Rutherford, and Walt, located in Sonoma. Each one is geared to its own demographic and offers its own unique experiences that are outside of the traditional tasting at the bar.
“There has been a shift in the industry to cater to what visitors want—a transition from a traditional tasting room bar offerings to more experiential, lifestyle-centric related tour and tasting options,” says Covey. “There has also been a decrease in the number of wineries guests visit per day to allow for enabling a more focused consumer. We recommend guests visit two-to-three wineries per day with a leisurely lunch in between—and we hope one of those winery choices be visiting us. We are a close-knit industry in Wine Country, and collaborate often to brainstorm efforts that help the guest appreciate Napa Valley and its slower pace.”
Trends in tasting rooms today go beyond just the “room” to give visitors a whole experience. More wineries are opting to only honor reservations, which also allows them to take that one-on-one experience to the next level, by incorporating tours, or specific varietal experiences, such as Cabernet Sauvignon tastings. With six to seven hundred people visiting per weekend, the winery has incorporated specific tastings to fill particular niches.
“We introduced a new tasting earlier this year called the Ultimate Cabernet Experience,” says Covey. “It’s a sit-down tasting of our higher-end Cabernets and features a flight of current releases. It’s an elevated experience that takes place in the historic Bergfeld Building,” she explains. “Another new experience we introduced at both HALL St. Helena and HALL Rutherford is our platinum collection tasting—a series of three wines that head winemaker Steve Leveque has created to showcase the best of the best. These wines retail for $350 per bottle, and it’s a sit down tasting for Cabernet collectors and connoisseurs; typically for those who appreciate and understand Napa Valley Cabernet—or would like too,” she says. “We are seeing that our guests are more engaged with being introduced to our higher end Cabernets in tasting environments where they can ask questions and learn about winemaking style and philosophy.”
Just as important as how a tasting room is designed is how it is built. To that end, HALL felt corporate responsibility to ensure sustainability and environmentally friendly-business practices, and used that mentality in designing and constructing their buildings. In 2009, HALL was awarded the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Gold award for its St. Helena property—the first winery in California to earn this prestigious award which is a nationally accepted building rating program for the construction, design and operations of green buildings. HALL was later awarded another LEED Gold Certification for its St. Helena Tasting Room and high-tech Production Facility.
“Green efficiencies and green technologies are a major focus for our owners Craig and Kathryn Hall and President Mike Reynolds, across all of their properties,” says Covey. “We take no short cuts and invest more in various areas because it’s the right thing to do for the environment. This translates into the vineyards with our CCOF certifications for our estate vineyards, LEED certifications, solar panels on our tasting room ceilings, and so on. We have a myriad of sustainable efforts at every touch point of the business. We detail much of that as part of our We Care platform on hallwines.com that focuses on responsibility, community, arts and entrepreneurship.”
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