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10.08.2006

Extortion in Oregon Wine Tasting Rooms

I just got back from a lovely three day weekend of wine tasting and eating around the Willamette Valley and Portland, Oregon. It was a fabulous trip (about which you'll be reading several times in the coming weeks). We (Ruth and I and two of our friends) tasted a lot of good Pinot Noir, saw some beautiful country, and had some lovely meals. Really the trip was only marred by one thing, about which I am now going to rant: unbelievably high fees for wine tasting at many of the wineries. We're not just talking expensive, we're talking extortion here folks -- profiteering pure and simple.

Think I'm exaggerating? Try these on for size. Two one ounce pours, of two current vintage Pinot Noirs for $8 at the Ponzi tasting room. Four of the same sized pours for $17 at the Carleton Winemakers Studio.

Yes that's right. $4.25 per ounce. Not sure how expensive that is? Your average wine bottle holds 25 ounces. Do the math.

Even if I am estimating incorrectly and those miniscule tasting pours I got were a bit more than one ounce, that means we (and the rest of the visiting public) were being charged more than SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS per bottle for our wine. Which, by the way, was way more than even the highest retail price of any wine we tasted over the course of three days.

Can I tell you how fucking outrageous this is? Completely.

Let's get one thing straight. I don't mind at all that wineries charge a fee for tasting their wine. It costs something (a lot) to maintain a tasting room and pay the staff. And the wine costs something, too. Especially for wineries with smaller productions, they simply can't afford to give wine away all day long. Also, regrettably, there are a lot of people who think nothing of spending a weekend wine tasting without buying a single bottle of wine from any of the several wineries whose hospitality they take advantage of.

For all of these reasons. Wineries are completely justified in charging a fee to taste their wines. As many in Napa and Sonoma have started to do over the last ten years.

Of course, many wineries choose not to charge for tasting. These wineries clearly recognize the value in offering free samples to their prospective customers -- a tactic that has been proven to increase sales (just think of all the samples you see in grocery stores around the world). Whether through genuinely inspiring a purchase because of the consumers appreciation for the product, or inducing one through the consumers self-imposed guilt at getting something for free, samples work. Period. One must also not underestimate the value of free hospitality from a brand standpoint -- people will leave with a better impression of the brand no matter what they thought of the wine.

Those wineries that do not subscribe to this logic, or who have done the math and somehow are not coming out ahead on the costs of the tasting room, are, as I said, justified in charging for tasting. While I have not done the math (and would love someone in the business to share some numbers) I believe an acceptable fee for tasting to be between two and ten dollars. Fees at this level seem like they have the potential to both recoup the costs of the wine, as well as provide incremental revenue to offset staff and facilities costs at the winery.

Tasting fees should be waived when visitors purchase wine. Not only does this make financial sense (when a winery sells its wine at retail cost -- and often the winery sells it for higher than you can find the wine elsewhere-- it is making between four and ten times the profit margin that it does selling through distributors) it also makes sense from a goodwill perspective. Customers will be incentivized to buy wine, will feel good about "saving money" by having the tasting fee waived, and will feel like the winery is appreciating their business.

Why so many of the wineries we went to in Oregon couldn't figure out this simple logic is beyond baffling. So baffling in fact that I must simply conclude the opposite: they know that they are raping their customers financially, and they're smiling all the way to the bank. Which, on the face of it, makes me never want to buy another Oregon Pinot Noir ever again. Especially when in Napa -- NAPA! the epitome of over-hyped and over-priced luxury approaches to wine -- tasting fees are actually substantially lower.

Of course, there are wonderful wineries in Oregon that have no tasting fees (August Cellars, Chehalem, Elk Cove, Lawton, Patton Valley Vineyards, Scott Paul wines, Willakenzie, among others) and still others who have sensible fees that are waived with purchase. Let them not not be the subjects of my, or any consumer's ire.

For the rest of the Oregon wineries who are charging twelve, fifteen, or seventeen dollars to taste a few wines, I have this message: How in the world can you justify charging consumers four to six times as much for your wine as they would pay ordering it by the glass in a wine bar 20 miles down the road?

You can't. SHAME. SHAME SHAME.

I normally forbid most commercial plugs on this blog, but I would like all my readers (including the wineries themselves) to post the names of any Oregon wineries they know of that do not have tasting fees. Let's stop this madness.

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