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God in His goodness sent the grapes, to cheer both great and small; 
 little fools will drink too much, and great fools not at all. 


Wineries, Tasting Fees, and You

Winery Insight Featured Article - May 2003 by Timothy O. Rice


More than anything else about wineries, tasting fees bug me.


In general, I would say a visit to a winery tasting room is one of life’s least problematic pleasures.  The help are always pleasant and helpful.  The other patrons are in a good mood (after all, they are off on a trip away from their cares for a day or week, drinking wine – how could they be in a bad mood?)  Conversations often spring up, people chime in with advice, everyone is happy, joking and smiling.


 Into the midst of this comes the subject of tasting fees.


There is no standard on this.  Some wineries taste for free.  Some wineries taste some wines for free, and reserve others so that you have to pay for them.  Some charge a fee only for a group of 10 or more (nine drinks for free?)  Some wineries charge an upfront fee, but rebate it if you buy wine.  Some don’t rebate anything, no matter what you buy.  Some charge $1, some $3, some $5, some $10, running all the way up to the $30 I found at a couple.  (Darn good wineries, those last two, and far from your average tasting experience; it might be worth it.)  Some give a “souvenir glass” in exchange for your fee.  Sometimes it includes a guided tour of the winery, sometimes not.


These are difficult economic times, and I am sure winery management debates the pros and cons of tasting fees long and hard before putting them in.  We own our own business, and we can sympathize: no one likes to give the product of their sweat away.


So they must sit and agonize over this decision:  How many customers will we drive away?  How much should we charge?  Should we raise it?  Lower it?


I want wineries to stay in business, and I want them to succeed, to continue making better and better wine.  To do that, they need to make money, and if the best or the only way they can provide a tasting room is to charge a fee, well, okay.  I can accept that.


It still bugs me.


One part is that “souvenir glass”.  This can be anything from a low-end 25-cent throwaway on up, but we really do not want it or need it.  In the last few years, we’ve probably been in 75 wineries or more.  What would we do with dozens of mismatched glasses?  If we’re on a trip away from home, where will we put it in the suitcase?  So we normally just leave the glass on the bar when we go.  Yet we always feel, somehow, like we paid for it, and there’s always a second or so of vague annoyance at having to deal with the issue.


Another annoyance is being surprised by the fee.  If the person behind the tasting bar says “Would you like to taste?” and you say “Yes.” and then they say “That will be …”, there’s always an awkward moment.  I don’t think it matters much what the fee is, or whether you can easily pay it.  Any winery that charges a fee for tastings should have it clearly posted: a sign in the tasting room, a note on the brochure, a statement on the website.


This last becomes particularly important when there is a change in policy.  Last Spring we stopped by a few wineries in Connecticut; two had recently started charging tasting fees, which we discovered at the tasting bar.  This Spring we stopped in one in New Jersey we had been to before that suddenly had a tasting fee.


We could, I suppose, have called and checked, then made up our minds on whether we’d like to go there.  This being the day of the cell phone, we could have done it from the privacy of our car in their parking lot.  But that takes a bit of the magic away for us.  We tend to just pick up and get going, stopping at whatever winery we come to.


Unfortunately, I think we’ll continue to see more and more wineries going to tasting fees.  There are still some out there that don’t charge – and some darn good ones – but I wonder how long they will stay that way.  We haven’t been to California in quite a while, but Napa seems to be wall-to-wall tasting fees from all reports, and Sonoma closing in.


One thing I do find I have changed.  We are the sort of people who have always gone in for a “courtesy buy” in a tasting room, even when we were hard-pressed to figure out what to buy.  When we actually like the wine, we try hard to keep it from becoming a “courtesy case”.  But I have a lot less trouble walking away when the winery charged a tasting fee.


I suppose that is a trade off.  If they want to charge me to taste their wine, it had better be good.  Any “obligation” I feel for the free pours goes away the moment they charge.  That is the other half of that decision they should be agonizing over: what is the cost of that feeling?


If you have an opinion on tasting fees, please email me at  trice@weekendwinery.comI’d like to hear it.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007