One feature of Midwest wineries that sets them apart from wineries in California is that many offer free wine tastings. On the west coast, in Napa or Sonoma, you usually get charged at least $15 just to sample a few meager samples of vino. For understandable, but possibly misguided reasons, the tradition of a free wine tasting in our region could be changing.
In my humble experience as a bartender at Belvoir Winery, very few people who do a free wine tasting leave without either having a glass of wine, buying a bottle or two, or at least tipping the bartender. I assumed free tastings were the norm across the Midwest so I was surprised during a visit to Hermann, Missouri where the top wineries charge for wine tastings. Paid tastings have been the norm in Hermann for a while, although some wineries have divided their wines into two categories so you can still taste a couple of them for free.
There’s obviously a logic to charging. As Midwest wineries become more popular, larger numbers of bus tours or partying groups like bachelorette parties in hired limousines (rarely bachelor parties it seems) are arriving en masse in tasting rooms across the region intent on drinking the free tastings and not much else. A staff member at one prominent Missouri winery explained that the reason they now charge for tastings is because too many of these bigger groups would come through, only interested in drinking for free, and few would buy glasses or bottles of wine. Also, with improving wines that can retail for near $30, wineries found they were sacrificing too much of their good stuff to customers who’s only interest was to drink for free. Charging for tastings would be a way of ensuring their ‘good stuff’ was drunk by customers who would appreciate it.
Fair points. The problem now is that these wineries have lost some of that ‘good feeling’ that comes from offering customers a free tasting. The easiest way to relax and welcome winery visitors (and put them in the mood to have a drink and buy wine!) is to offer them a free tasting. In my experience, customers (from bachelorettes to serious drinkers) usually respond to this welcome by taking the free tasting, tipping, buying a glass and often a bottle. Wineries that charge for tastings no longer have this seductive weapon in their customer service arsenal. It can also makes Midwest wineries seem more commercial, more like Napa.
Arguably, rather than customers, the ones hit hardest by the wine tasting charge are the staff. After paying for a wine tasting at one establishment, I found I forgot to leave a tip. In fact, the act of leaving a tip was replaced by paying this wine tasting charge. So the money that might have gone towards a tip, now pays for the tasting and the customer may also be left less inclined to buy a glass or bottle.
I felt sorry for the staff at wineries that charge for tastings and I’m very glad we don’t charge. Tips at the winery where I work easily exceed the hourly wage I earn.
At some wineries in Hermann, charging for tastings wasn’t the only thing that took me by surprise. A Henry Ford style division of tasting room labor had also taken place.
Allow me to explain: at the winery where I work – and many across the Midwest – when you do a tasting and then buy a bottle, you’re doing all that with one member of the winery staff. At some of the bigger wineries in Hermann, you taste at one counter after paying your fee, then you have to go somewhere else, like the winery shop, to buy your bottles. This shuffling from person to person must also reduce the tips received by wine tasting staff.
It also depersonalizes the experience for the customer and makes their visit to a local winery more like a visit to a supermarket. I can’t help but think the whole experience for a customer is so much better if they are greeted, served a tasting and sold glasses of wine and bottles by the same person.
But I do get why a growing number of wineries are charging for tastings and organizing their tasting rooms in a more ‘industrial’ fashion. In some ways it’s a good sign – these wineries are clearly popular! I’m just not sure that charging for tastings and converting the local winery experience into something more like a liquor store with a tasting room makes good economic sense. It can also have a negative impact on staff and customers.
See Related Story: Are Wineries Neglecting an Important Message?
Danny Wood is an editor of Midwest Wine Press and works part-time at Belvoir Winery in Liberty, Missouri.