Remember when you could visit wine country and taste through a selection of wines for free?
In those days, it was common courtesy to buy at least one bottle of wine as a show of thanks.
But when tour buses started invading the tasting rooms with large groups who basically were on a rolling party, things began to change.
One by one, wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and elsewhere began charging a fee for their previously free tastings.
Then, over time, the prices of those tastings rose from nominal to fairly expensive. At some wineries, tastings were replaced by or supplemented with “experiences,” which might include a tour and some food and could command even higher prices.
We don’t blame the wineries for this trend. If fault must be assigned, it’s clearly with those partiers who would essentially take over a tasting room, drink the complimentary wine and then move on.
Free flights had long been the tradition in Australia’s Hunter Valley. They helped introduce wine to a nation that long had embraced beer as the adult beverage of choice.
But now the policy is changing there as well — not so much because of those parties on wheels, but rather because of the government-mandated closures that left so many wineries without revenue for an extended period of time.
“Sampling” has always been a successful marketing tactic, as Costco has demonstrated with its in-store tastings of everything from meatballs to pancake syrup. But when we “train” people that they can get something for free, it can be challenging to suddenly start charging for it.
Wineries operate with high overhead, and more and more are finding it impossible to give away their product to people with no guarantee that they will at least make a “courtesy purchase.”
A handful of wineries still waive the tasting fee if a purchase is made, and that seems like a good compromise. But if you happen to visit a winery that charges a fairly high fee to taste, don’t be surprised.
While we like to write and talk about the “art” of wine, that art does not exist without the “business” of wine.