Are Kids Taking Over the Region’s Wineries?
It may not be a corked bottle or a spider seeking refuge in the tasting room that sends visitors running from the region’s wineries— it might be unruly kids.
Bill Skvarla, owner of Harmony Hill Vineyards & Winery in Bethel, Ohio, caused a little rough and tumble when he implemented a no-children policy at his tasting room this season. Once news of this rule broke in Mark Fisher’s ‘Uncorked” column in the Dayton Daily News, both sides — advocating either a family-friendly or an adults-only environment — emerged, guns blazing.
But if you ask Skvarla, it was justice long overdue. Initially opened in 2003 to be a family-friendly destination, things quickly got out of hand with his youngest visitors. As a host to outdoor music concerts, Harmony Hill became a popular destination for families.
‘What the winery had turned into is a place where people bring their children and expect us to be babysitters,” he says. ‘I had actually hired someone as staff to stay on the grounds as a babysitter. Kids were throwing rocks at my miniature donkeys at the winery, and at the door to my wine cave. People were getting hit with Frisbees and having their wine glasses knocked over.”
Harmony Hill is the only winery in the Midwest to outright ban pint-sized visitors from its tasting room. Most others have learned to accommodate children with a combination of patience and advanced planning.
‘A lot of our ability to handle families starts with the physical plan of the winery,” says Diane Hahn, co-owner of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard Winery in Mackinaw, Illinois. ‘We’re out in the country and we have a nice-sized tasting room with a large deck and wrap-around porches. In other words, there’s plenty of room for kids to roam — a luxury urban tasting rooms don’t have. The expansive lawn area is a blessing during band concerts on Saturday evenings when grandparents often bring their grandchildren,” she says.
“Fortunately, we haven’t had any problems with kids running wild,” says Brandy Nance, marketing manager at Blue Sky Winery in Makanda, Illinois. She said special events at Blue Sky encourage those with children to visit on particular dates, such as the Halloween festival where the best-costume prize is a $25 gift card to the tasting room’s boutique where jams and chocolate satisfy child winners. Outdoor concerts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons feature bands that are folk, rock, acoustic, alternative and ‘60s/’70s genre that appeal to all ages. Likewise, Mackinaw Valley Vineyard hosts Wild West Day each year, geared more towards kids with drama reenactments and the fake deputizing of kids as sheriffs.
Pam Bonin, marketing manager at Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana, said, “We rarely have issues — we might have kids playing out by the pond, doing something that’s not safe — or climbing our rock structure out front.” Oliver, which promotes ‘a nice, relaxed atmosphere” and calls itself family-friendly. Its gardens are open for picnics. Dogs are welcome on a leash. ‘One time I even had a family bring in a lunch pail with little chickens. They were doing a photo shoot outside for Easter.”
But if children do begin screaming, running or creating chaos in the tasting room or outdoor area, what measures should be in place? That can be a hard-line for a winery owner to walk.
Bonin prefers a straightforward approach. ‘We try to talk to the customer if there is a complaint so we can mitigate it quickly,” she says.
‘We appreciate it when parents help keep an eye on them,” says Nance. ‘One of the owners, he has nine children, so we understand that it’s hard to get out of the house without a babysitter.”
At Mackinaw Valley, another concern is teenage behavior that might be annoying to adults. ‘We don’t encourage groups of teenagers to come out by themselves, although that never happens,” says Hahn. Being in a small-town region where everybody knows everybody works to their advantage, especially on concert nights: ‘We have so many parents out there, I’m sure one of their parents’ friends would see them.”
Another tactic the winery takes to keep kids out of the winery’s lake is to invite children to feed the fish with co-owner Paul Hahn right after he announces the night’s band. Otherwise, ‘we just try to emphasize there is a lake and somebody really needs to be responsible and watch the kids,” she says.
Banning kids turned out to be a solid business move for Harmony Hill. ‘The last day of our season it was a record crowd of 750 people,” Skvarla says. ‘It was an absolute blessing to not have the kids. We’ve gotten a lot of resentment but maybe 95% of the people are with us.” He even gained back customers who say they stopped coming due to rowdy kids.
When asked if he will over overturn the policy, Skvarla doesn’t skip a beat in his response: “No”, he says, “absolutely not.”
Bonin, however, takes the long view. ‘In 10 years when the child is 21, we want him or her to come back,” she says.