Elin McCoy

‘The boom in tast­ing rooms far out­strips the num­ber of new winer­ies’

Decanter - - NEWS - Elin McCoy is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and au­thor who writes for Bloomberg News

Sit­ting on a plushy couch and lis­ten­ing to slow jazz while sip­ping a de­li­cious re­serve Zin­fan­del at the oh-so-cool Brown Es­tate tast­ing room in down­town napa, i couldn’t help re­call­ing the days when a Cal­i­for­nia win­ery tast­ing room was an up­turned bar­rel with open bot­tles sit­ting on it, and sips, poured by the winemaker, were free.

then came the era of crowded tast­ing bars with plas­tic spit buck­ets that no one used. to re­fresh your mem­ory, just watch the 2004 wine buddy film Side­ways.

in the past five years, the tast­ing room has mor­phed yet again, this time into el­e­gant liv­ing rooms and slickly de­signed lounges with cosy seat­ing, food pair­ing menus, sit-down guided tast­ings, idyl­lic vine­yard views, and the prom­ise of an ‘ex­pe­ri­ence’. nat­u­rally the price to par­tic­i­pate has gone way, way up.

the tast­ing room con­cept is fairly re­cent, pop­u­larised in new World re­gions. You’d be hard-pressed to find one, for ex­am­ple, in Bur­gundy or Bordeaux. in Cal­i­for­nia, it was orig­i­nally a low-key place to sam­ple a win­ery’s prod­ucts be­fore you bought, open to the pub­lic for a cer­tain num­ber of hours a day.

the lat­est spots, though, of­fer some­thing wider, a kind of so­cial con­text. they put tast­ing into set­tings that re­sem­ble those where wine lovers usu­ally drink. Part en­ter­tain­ment, part ed­u­ca­tion, part day-long han­gout des­ti­na­tion, they in­clude plenty of es­sen­tial in­sta­gram op­por­tu­ni­ties. the old idea of just tast­ing as much as you can at as many winer­ies as pos­si­ble has given way to con­sumer de­sire for a way to im­merse your­self in ro­man­ti­cised as­pects of the wine-coun­try life­style.

the decor of some re­in­forces the idea of wine as ex­pen­sive lux­ury, while many smaller pro­duc­ers have opened ur­ban spa­ces in down­town napa, Sonoma and Healds­burg de­signed to ex­press their win­ery’s ‘per­son­al­ity’. Winemaker Mark Herold says his newly ren­o­vated napa spot re­flects his wines – eclec­tic, mod­ern, ac­ces­si­ble and un­ex­pected. the cen­tre­piece? a pink neon sign.

oth­ers opt for hands-on ac­tiv­i­ties or a ca­sual na­ture vibe to pull in mil­len­ni­als. Pic­turesque, ha­cienda-style Scribe win­ery lets peo­ple taste in a re­laxed nat­u­ral set­ting and on cosy pa­tios to ‘con­nect’ with the vine­yard land­scape. Pop­u­lar brand the Pris­oner Wine Com­pany, bought for $285m by Con­stel­la­tion Brands in 2016, opened its first tast­ing room last au­tumn. it’s billed as a ‘Mak­ery’, a busy art, wine and food cen­tre, where you can hang out in stu­dios with lo­cal ar­ti­sans like a soap maker, take classes and taste wine.

the boom in new tast­ing rooms far out­strips the num­ber of new winer­ies. their pop­u­lar­ity is il­lus­trated by the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s new online win­ery guide ‘the Press’, which in­cludes re­views of the lat­est open­ings, de­tail­ing the space’s vibe and the cost, usu­ally from $35 to more than $100.

For winer­ies, the pur­pose of tast­ing rooms is fo­cused on the bot­tom line. the busi­ness model for new brands de­pends on di­rect-to­con­sumer sales, where prof­its are high­est, and on win­ning drinkers’ loy­alty.

For Rob McMillan, se­nior VP of the Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank’s wine di­vi­sion, tast­ing room ex­pe­ri­ences cre­ate mem­ory mark­ers in cus­tomers’ minds while en­cour­ag­ing sign-ups for wine clubs and mail­ing lists. they’re so­phis­ti­cated profit cen­tres that re­in­force the im­age a win­ery wants to con­vey.

as with so much else in Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try, con­tro­versy reigns. Ex­pand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties in napa to in­clude ‘re­lated mar­ket­ing, sales and other ac­ces­sory uses’ opened the flood­gates. Lo­cal crit­ics there, and in Sonoma, worry the oeno­tourism pro­moted by new-style tast­ing rooms will de­stroy the re­gions’ ru­ral beauty.

Will they? it’s true that over-the-top spots like the Pris­oner’s Mak­ery seem more like en­ter­tain­ment and shop­ping com­plexes. But most of the new tast­ing rooms are fos­ter­ing an at­ti­tude to­wards wine that most of us ap­plaud: the idea that tast­ing wine isn’t just about what’s in the glass, but can also be part of con­ver­sa­tion, cul­ture and life.

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