Are Tasting Rooms Essential to Build Your Brand?

Some wine producers skip the tasting room entirely, but there are others who are quick to tout the merits of a brick and mortar establishment that facilitates a way to directly interact with consumers and tell the winery’s story.

Count Christine Clair, Winery Director for Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon, among those in that camp. Clair said such a in-person presence was important enough that even traditionally online businesses in other industries were spending money on setting themselves up to do business the old-fashioned way.

“Brand hubs are becoming important in nearly every industry — wholesale or direct-to-consumer,” Clair said. “You see digital brands like Warby Parker, Rent the Runway and AllBirds now building brick-and-mortar retail to anchor their brand and develop their followings in key markets. 

“Tasting rooms have been that for the wine industry. Some tasting rooms operate as a significant piece of a direct-to-consumer winery business model making up 50% of their sales. Others, that have wholesale business as well, use their tasting rooms for brand awareness to support wholesale follow-up purchasing.”

Clair said Willamette Valley VIneyards prioritized both.

“The features that are key for a successful tasting room experience are the experiences offered that fit your winery’s goals and positioning, matching the service style and personalities to the right experiences and customers and storytelling,” she said. “In this experience economy, customers are looking for education and entertainment to connect with brands.”

Nini Edwards, Manager of Harkness Edwards Vineyards in Winchester, Kentucky, said it was important to make sure your employees knew that.

”They are coming for the wine and leaving with a feeling. We go over the wine knowledge with customers, but I train my staff to be very personable and ask the customers about themselves,” Edwards said. “When they leave feeling valued and comfortable they have a positive feeling associated with my brand.”

Michael Gonzales, Director of Tasting Rooms for Stoller Wine Group in Dayton, Oregon, said he believed there were no specific features that defined a great tasting room, noting that tasting inside a cellar or at someone’s kitchen table could be “as memorable or more so” than at an opulent location.

“However, those who ultimately choose to embark on what can sometimes feel like a pilgrimage to a winery or restaurant or any destination for that matter, should be made to feel validated and like their time, their passion, and money have not been wasted,” Gonzales said. 

Also, he added, having proper parking spaces on site can maximize what is seemingly a trivial piece of the puzzle.

Gonzales said he believed tasting rooms existed in the same dimension of hospitality as destination restaurants.

“The nexus in both examples is a deep motivation to seek out and experience the beginning of something great… to visit ‘The Place’ where it all began,” Gonzales said. “Therein lies a sense of discovery that is unique to our industry. However, unlike a restaurant, the world of wine encourages our consumers to formulate their opinions of us without ever having to visit. Their opinions change every time a bottle of our wine is enjoyed.”

Austin Hope, owner of Hope Family Wines, said giving guests the option of a tour gave them a chance to take a deeper dive into the wines, noting that for his Austin Hope portfolio he offers a private aromatics tasting and tours of the estate vineyards in Paso Robles, California.

“During the pandemic, we had to pivot to reservations in our Tasting Cellar which allows us to provide a more personalized connection with our guests so that they leave with amazing memories of their time with us. The vibe is relaxed, friendly, and a fun approach to serious wines,” Hope said. “I believe the Tasting Room experience is only anchored by a feeling of closeness to the actual product, process, and people that make it all happen.”

Michael Honig, President of Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford, California, said he also found site tours to be a useful storytelling tool.

“We offer an electric golf cart tour of the vineyard and show people some of the things we are doing to create a small footprint,” Honig said.

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