Perhaps it should be listed under “First world problems”, but the issue of how much wineries charge for a tasting is alive and well, as I learned firsthand last weekend.

It is, of course, partly cultural. Wineries in most European countries, unlike their American counterparts, have tended historically not to charge. Visiting a winery in the days before cheap flights and hand luggage restrictions was traditionally a shopping activity. You visited, tasted, and bought a few bottles or a case of the wine you liked. But the age of budget airlines and massively increased tourism in popular wine regions has changed it into something more experiential. Many visitors not only won’t buy, but even if they did, hand-luggage restrictions would prevent them from carting their purchases back home.

I completely sympathise with the many wineries in France and other countries who have responded to this change by charging a modest fee for tastings. It’s also a good way to ward off time-wasters –basically those looking to get loaded for free. Opening bottles and spending time with visitors comes at a cost to the winery, as does glass washing and employing staff to help on busy days. If the tasting per se is the basis of the visit (and not the opportunity to purchase), it’s right and proper to charge.

The challenges are twofold: What constitutes a reasonable fee, and how flexible does one need to be?

[pullquote]The tasting would cost €20 per person, refundable if we each bought more than €300 of wine. [/pullquote]Visiting a medium/large sized winery in Germany’s Mosel valley, I received a lesson in how not to do it. I’d made an appointment in advance, asking if it was possible to visit the cellar and see the vineyards. No tasting fee was mentioned, either in the email correspondence or anywhere obvious on the winery’s website. On arrival, it become clear that having an appointment was somewhat meaningless. We were motioned into a large, rather grand tasting room and eventually attended to by a member of staff, who informed us that the tasting would cost €20 per person, refundable if we each bought more than €300 of wine. It was not possible to view the winery or vineyards, and clearly none of the winemaking team were on hand for questions.

The fee was a nasty surprise, but we capitulated – We’d already made the effort to drive there. It would grant us eight minuscule pours from a grab-bag of the substantial range. All of the bottles were already open, in most cases for 24-48 hours (they were carefully annotated with opening dates). I don’t have a problem with this, it’s pretty standard practice in the Mosel and neighbouring Alsace, where wineries typically produce many single vineyard bottlings, often with rather fancy prices. In any case, structured, age-worthy Rieslings can keep well for up to a week if they’re refrigerated and carefully resealed.

However, eight dribbles from already open bottles (which would go on to serve many more visitors) does not feel like €20 of value to me. The fancy mineral water on the table probably cost more.

Never mind. The wines were decent, we found two that we liked. I naively wondered if the €300 rule would actually be enforced. Perhaps if we showed goodwill and purchased an expensive bottle (€26) the fees would be waived? Not a chance. We left the winery with two bottles of wine, our pockets some €80 lighter and with the uncomfortable feeling of having been fleeced.

So who cares? Wineries ought to care. Visitors who leave with a sour taste in their mouth may stop purchasing – or recommending –  the winery’s products when they get back home. Instead of departing as enthusiastic ambassadors, we left disappointed and surprised at a winery whose bottles we’d previously enjoyed at home.

Here’s my suggested tasting fee “101” for wineries:

  1. Keep the fee reasonable and in proportion to what is being offered. If you ceremoniously uncork a rare vintage and present me with a plate of charcuterie to nibble on, I am happy to pay €20.
  2. Offset the fee against any purchases made. That way visitors leave happy.
  3. Know who is in your tasting room. Tourists, wine lovers, fans (existing customers), journalists, retailers, casual passers-by all have different needs. Not all will announce themselves. Pay attention to whether visitors are spitting or not. It’s a clue.
  4. Inform people in advance if you expect them to pay something. Not on arrival when they’ve already trekked out to your wonderful remote location.

Wine lovers who tour the winelands should be realistic. Wine and labour costs are not free, and wineries are not charities. But neither are they theme parks or supermarkets. Passion and romance are key drivers for vineyard visits. The best promotional strategy for any winery owner is surely to fuel those emotions, not dampen them down.



About The Author

Simon J Woolf

Simon is an award-winning English wine and food writer, currently based in Amsterdam. He writes mostly, but not exclusively about organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Fermented grape juise has been his muse for the last 15 years. Originally he just drunk the stuff, then started studying, and finally got the urge to communicate in 2011, starting with Simon contributes regularly to Decanter magazine, Meininger Wine Business International and other publications.

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13 Responses

  1. T Reaves

    By not naming the winery, you are doing a disservice both to your readers, and to that winery. If you have a negative experience, especially when you talk about that experience, without naming names, you give the appearance of either making it up, or of being concerned you may upset said winery ( thereby clearly favoring industry over readers). By naming them, I know what to expect before arriving, and you give them the opportunity to change their ways. Whereas that winery most assuredly does not read your writing, you can bet the have a Google Alert setup for mention of their business.

    • Simon J Woolf

      Thanks for the comment @t_reaves:disqus – I thought long and hard about this. You do have a point, however I also frankly did not want to give any coverage to the winery because they get enough as it is, and I don’t want to give them any more.

      I also felt that by naming the winery I would risk turning this article into little more than a petulant winge, whereas I was aiming for something a little more constructive.

      I’m certainly not concerned about upsetting the winery, but I’m keen to stress that this piece isn’t about them – it’s more a discussion of how wineries can come up with a sensible tasting room offering that ticks all boxes, without putting people off.

      if you or anyone else is desperate to know, you are welcome to contact me privately (simon at themorningclaret dot com)

      • Simon J Woolf

        Certainly not. I saw your longer response in my inbox, but it’s not showing on the site for some reason. I’m checking this with the site admins. Maybe it’s in a moderation queue as it was quite long. I’ll find out . . .

  2. wblake gray

    Hey Simon, as a colleague I have to say, don’t ever visit Napa Valley.

    • Simon J Woolf

      Thanks Blake! You’re probably right. I have been to Sonoma many, many moons ago – on the advice that it was “less disneyfied”.

  3. Jerome Hainz - BottleStops

    Hi Simon – very interesting read. I have had quite a number of tastings at German winemakers and I found them always very easygoing – if you indeed signalled you’d take away a couple of bottles. That accounts especially for the lesser known wine regions. Keep in mind German winemakers are still mostly family run, with very little resources to afford tasting rooms such as the ones you find in the US, NZ or Oz. For many of these small winemakers, it’s on one hand great to sell directly, but on the other hand, it’s a lot of risk they invest their time in indeed just a tourist.
    I find a well communicated tasting fee a relief since there is less pressure to buy. Would love to see that more often.
    You must have picked a quite popular winery – in a very touristy area.
    As for for your expectations on a 20Euro tasting fee, agree that this should include some good wines and time invested, and that it should be communicated properly in advance. There are some winemakers that charge tastings by the glass. But still there are a lot who let you taste for free. And you might want to consider going to some of the plenty of tasting events in the region – where you get so much more than what you paid for. Cheers from Bottlestops in Germany.

    • Simon J Woolf

      Thanks @jeromehainz:disqus – yes, this was a larger winery (they own about 100 hectares I believe), with a grand tasting room. It wouldn’t have been my choice for a visit if I hadn’t previously enjoyed some of their wines.

      I had many great tasting experiences on the same trip (which was a long weekend break, not a press trip or anything like that) – a random visit to a guy with 0.5ha of vines in Ürziger Würzgarten (Benedict Loosen Erben) who turned out to have wonderful wines, and a fantastic tasting in the vineyards just next to Kröv, where we discovered a young winemaker (Marko Adany) making really sensational wines. – one to watch!

    • Simon J Woolf

      You make a very good point about not being under pressure. Totally agree with that. Transparency is the key.

  4. Simon J Woolf

    You make a fair point but you’re misunderstanding the point of my article, which was not to heckle said winery, but rather to use the experience to gather some constructive points together – and to ruminate on what best practice might look like.

    Your united example is on a completely different level and I don’t believe is a good comparison here.

    The other point to make is that said winery has received 100 Parker points for at least one of their wines, and seems to be quite appreciated by James Suckling. Some idiot blogger (ie: me) mouthing off about them on a US site isn’t going to make them lose any sleep, or change their practices.

  5. VinoPigro

    I remember a tasting we had (a group of Italian winemakers and me) in Hospice de Beaune (F), years ago. The tasting fee was… crazy! And we tasted standing, with no food at all