Michael Fridjhon: Tasting room experiences are not consistent enough
By Michael Fridjhon, 14 September 2022
Not all wineries have tasting rooms open to members of the public. Romanée-Conti doesn’t, nor does Lafite or Petrus. In fact, simply gaining access to the hallowed spaces of these long-established estates requires better connections than you would need to secure a seat next to Cyril Ramaphosa at dinner. (That only requires loot and the willingness to contribute it to the perennially impecunious ANC).
Formal tasting rooms are very much a New World thing. You need to have to feel that promotion is as much part of the world of wine as terroir before you put a sign on your gate inviting visitors to sample and buy your wines. (Where, on still quite rare occasions, the French invite passers-by to taste their wines they have a sign which says “degustation” and the venue is often just the proprietor’s kitchen. Such opportunities are largely limited to the more rustic appellations and to the visibly less grand producers.)
In the early days of New World wine routes most tastings were free: they were the producers’ primary marketing tool. If you wasted some of your inventory on passing soaks (or students on an extended binge) that was no different from the wastage which accompanies any promotional campaign. Then the accountants moved in and suggested that by levying a charge the winery would apply a very pragmatic filter: if someone wasn’t ready to put up a nominal amount, he/she was clearly not worth wasting wine on.
In some parts of the New World winery tastings have acquired the sophistication of three-star Michelin dining: would-be visitors need to book in advance; they can choose from a suite of options ranging from 30 minutes of tasting room time and a pre-selected menu of largely entry-level wines to a dinner with the winemaker and a vertical of the cellar’s greatest rarities. Many of these options have ceased to be bait for the larger purchase from the cellar-door. Instead they are profit-makers in their own right.
Given this background you might think that the Cape’s tasting rooms have been fine-tuned to ensure the optimum visitor experience and to maximise winery income. After all we offer some of the world’s best wine tourism opportunities, we’ve been at it as long as the major New World countries, and cellar door sales are the highest margin revenues in the trade.
Visitor experiences don’t always confirm this assumption. I received a mail recently from a Gauteng-based radio personality who is a frequent visitor to the Cape’s tasting rooms. He provided a thoughtful assessment from his latest wine-land travels, the salient sections of which run as follows:
I am constantly struck by how inconsistent the tasting experience is. We visited four estates: at “A” the tasting was perfunctory: “this is our chardonnay, it has been in X barrels for Y months. Enjoy.” And the wine was disappointing. And then we went to “B” next door where it could not have been more different. The winemaker happened to be in attendance and scuttling between four different tables, engaging and explaining and pouring. We ended up spending substantially there.
At “C” the tasting was efficient and impersonal – not even a ‘where are you guys from?’ And then we went to “D”, found wine we liked and were well hosted by the winery’s book-keeper who was enthusiastic and didn’t mind us adding logs to her already roaring fire. In both instances there was a direct link between the way we were hosted and the money we spent. Which made me wonder if estates put enough thought into the tasting experience.
Wine business consultant Peter McAtamney publishes papers and shares his own empirical research on the value of a properly laid out and enthusiastically managed tasting room. Much of what he writes isn’t rocket science: it’s retailing 101 applied to the winery’s cellar door.
So this got me wondering: we constantly lament the so-called crisis of South African wine, but is it appropriate to focus on the industry’s failures, rather than its successes? Clearly there are wineries getting the visitor experience right, just as there are producers whose wines sell out within a month of release. There are estates which are consistent finalists in the Great Wine Capitals annual ratings for best wine tourism and best restaurants. There are also producers who go through the motions but do not invest their retail space with any passion, strategy or interest.
In short – we have performing and non-performing producers, those who fly and those who plummet. Industry organisations seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get the dof kids in the class to pass, instead of focusing on getting the bright ones to go further. Isn’t it time we cut them lose: it won’t take long to identify who’s on borrowed time and at least it will shorten the agony of the end-game.
- Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.
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