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Culture: Can Lowering Mile-High Tasting Room Fees Lure the Next Generation of Wine Drinkers?

Culture: Can Lowering Mile-High Tasting Room Fees Lure the Next Generation of Wine Drinkers?

Those who visit wineries in Paso Robles may be in for a shock these days. Tasting room fees have jumped to more than $50 per person at many wineries, even reaching $100 in some cases, triggering alarm amongst tourists and industry folk alike.

“It’s creating a barrier to people feeling comfortable to come in and taste wines,” says Matt Trevisan, who announced last month that he’s dropping his regular charge from $40 to $20 to taste at his Linne Calodo Cellars, located in Paso’s Willow Creek District. It’s an about-face for Trevisan, who was once a leader in pushing prices up years ago.

“If we want to attract the next generation of wine drinkers, we need to be able to show them the properties, teach them how wine is produced and explain to them why wine costs what it does,” continues Trevisan, who founded his winery in 1998 and helped spark Paso’s Rhône wine revolution. “If we preclude that opportunity to take them from the age of 21 to 40, they may never come around.”

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How did we get here? Over the past two decades, Paso Robles enjoyed a rocket ship-like ride common to so many emerging wine regions in California and beyond. In the beginning, wineries here charged nothing or very little to taste wines. But as the crowds came, tasting fees went up to $10 or $20 or more. This offset costs associated with the extra staff and keeping out the riff-raff. In rare cases, tasting fees actually generated income.

As the region’s reputation rose, however, so did the fees—to $30 and beyond, empowered by the belief that pricier pours lead to more serious wine buyers. Then along came the pandemic, triggering the near-ubiquitous use of reservation systems, food service and “enhanced” tastings. That pushed prices up even further, topping $100 in some cases, just to cover the expanded hospitality efforts. Today, like most everywhere across California, Paso prices seem to have reached their peak. By and large, business remains reliably steady, though not quite as booming as in recent years, the result of ongoing inflation and its chilling effect on spending habits.

Against this backdrop, Trevisan’s slashing of tasting room fees was immediately applauded by customers and industry players alike. Given that most media reports about tasting rooms concern jaw-dropping prices, exclusive experiences and luxurious add-ons, Linne Calodo’s August announcement caused quite a bit of stir in the industry, even leading to a mention on national television.

“It’s been crazy positive,” Trevisan says. “I’ve had club members saying thanks for taking a stand, and even banks saying ‘thanks goodness you’re doing it.’”

However, it seems like Trevisan has yet to start a trend. An informal survey of tasting rooms across the Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz did not reveal any copycats. Most, in fact, reported higher prices than ever, although a few had begun offering a lower-priced entry-level flight.

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Wine Business Monthly reported in July that Central Coast tasting fees average around $25, with $55 the average enhanced experience. Prices are only higher in Sonoma ($35 and $65) and Napa, where the usual tasting averages $55 and the enhanced clocks in at $110.

Still, based on the number of impassioned responses about tasting rooms strategies that came from the surveyed vintners, it’s clear they’re concerned about how to attract the next generation of wine lovers.

Matthew Bieszard of Gleason Family Vineyards, which owns Refugio Ranch and Roblar Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, believes that all ages appreciate a more experiential approach. Bieszard’s operations do so through farm-to-table menus and special tastings in the vineyard and chef’s garden.

“We are able to capture the attention of a new, younger generation of wine tasters looking for a unique experience while also captivating seasoned tasters and return guests,” says Bieszard. “Sure, our club member demographic is weighted 45 years old and up, but about 10 percent of it consists of folks 21 to 35 years old and this number is growing.”

Up the coast in the Edna Valley, Jean-Pierre Wolff, who started his eponymous brand in 1999, also believes that the experience matters more than cost for the younger generation. So does sustainability messaging and welcoming walk-in visitors rather than being rigid about reservations.

“However, I do not think that the slippery slope of unilaterally lowering tasting fees while overall operating costs of tasting rooms have increased is the best strategy to attract a younger audience,” warns Wolff. “This is particularly true for wineries who have not turned wine tasting into a luxury activity.”

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In making his decision, Trevisan imagined what it would be like to be a twenty-something today. When exploring wine country for the first time with a few friends, what might it feel like to have to put your credit card down just to secure an advanced reservation?

“When I was 25 years old, I didn’t want to take my friends wine tasting for $240,” he notes. “I didn’t have that sort of disposable income.”

Even older wine lovers are feeling the squeeze, he continues, spending thousands on travel, hotel rooms, meals and tasting fees. “Then they only come home with three bottles of wine!” complains Trevisan, who does, it should be noted, still offer a $90 “extended experience” tasting.

“We don’t want a model where customers come every four years,” stresses Trevisan, who’s trying to cultivate fans that return every year or even more often. “We want to make it more approachable.”

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