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COVID-19 pandemic ushers in tasting room changes as Sonoma, Napa wineries embrace appointment-only model

The pandemic has forced businesses to think outside their traditional way of doing things. That’s especially been the case for the region’s prominent wine industry, which traditionally has been of the most hidebound sectors that is hesitant to jump upon consumer trends.

The most dramatic change in the local sector has been in the tasting room, which is typically on every must-visit list to Sonoma County. Wineries were not allowed visitors during the first few months of COVID-19 because of health protocols and then customers were permitted at reduced capacity for the rest of 2020. Almost all were on an appointment-only basis. But as life gets back to normal, North Coast winery owners say the reservation model will be increasingly used more because it has grown in popularity with both consumers and their own staff.

Dry Creek Vineyard just north of Healdsburg is a perfect example.

Before the pandemic, about 50% of its visitors during the work week would be walk-in customers. That number could grow to as much as 70% during busy weekends, owner Kim Stare Wallace said.

Changed customer expectations

The winery has discovered the pandemic has changed customer expectations of what they want in a wine tasting: personalized service. Dry Creek was founded almost 50 years ago by Wallace’s father, David Stare, and became a pioneer for popularizing wines from northern Sonoma County, such as sauvignon blanc and zinfandel. The winery has typically been a top visitor draw because its centrally located in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley with many drop-in visitors coming by car, bicycle, chauffeur or Uber.

There are very few walk-in customers now as the state nears fully opening up on June 15, Wallace said. The guests are almost all by appointment and are hosted on the winery’s expansive lawn that allows for generous spacing. Customers prefer the more bespoke experience as opposed to the past of saddling up to a bar next to other guests, she said.

“What we are finding is that people really like the kind of more personalized experience. They are grateful to have a safe, slower … and more educationally focused tasting experience,” Wallace said. “This new business model is one we will probably stick with for a long time … we are getting such good customer feedback.”

Reservation-based model

The trend to a reservation-based model had already been occurring for years, especially across the premium wine regions of Sonoma and Napa counties, according to a survey by Silicon Valley Bank. The bank recently surveyed 460 wineries across the West Coast, including a large percentage locally.

In 2014, a previous Silicon Valley Bank survey found that 17% of wineries were by appointment only and another 15% were a combination of accepting both reservations and walk-in customers. That left a hefty 68% remaining for solely walk-in visitors seven years ago.

A reserved sign sits on a table at Dry Creek Vineyard near Healdsburg on Thursday, June 3, 2021.  Currently all tastings are by appointment only.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A reserved sign sits on a table at Dry Creek Vineyard near Healdsburg on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Currently all tastings are by appointment only. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

But changes had taken place by 2019 with 27% of wineries that were surveyed said they accepted a combination of reservations and walk-in customers while appointment-only visits remained at 17%. Wineries that did only walk-in visitors were down to 56%, according to the survey.

COVID-19 changed the marketplace dramatically as the survey found last year that 40% of wineries were appointment only and another 32% were the combination of reservations and walk-in customers. Wineries that did only walk-in visitors were at 27%.

The appointment-only model had traditionally been used at more premium wineries such as those in the Napa Valley that produce cult cabernet sauvignon or at coveted places such as Williams Selyem in Healdsburg, which is known for its pinot noir and monthslong waiting list. Those wineries also could charge much more for such tastings.

Locally, the pendulum swung much more dramatically during the pandemic. In Sonoma County, the bank’s survey found the rate of wineries accepting appointment-only visits jumped from 27% in 2018 to 47% in 2020. Napa County wineries increased from 55% to 65% over the same time period.

Many wineries had been fearful to attempt such a reservation model until the coronavirus forced them, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of the bank’s wine division.

“There had been a long resistance in the industry,” McMillan said. “Once you have been in the middle of it (the pandemic), you had removed that fear.”

Pandemic sped up a trend

The pandemic sped up a trend that was continuing already as more consumers preferred taking their time to learn more about the winery they visit as opposed to cramming in many shorter visits as possible in a day, said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners trade group.

“They (wineries) can create that enhanced customer experience and service. They can do much more wine education and they can do more with their brand. They can tell the history and the stories that are there and answer questions,” Haney said.

The trend also has occurred at Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa, which has the largest number of tasting rooms in Sonoma County with 11. Those include the iconic Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens right off Highway 101 in Fulton and La Crema at Saralee’s Vineyard in the heart of the Russian River Valley.

The company before the pandemic had been planning a reservation model for all of its wineries via the Tock app and website. It was implemented last summer and has been a success to limit capacity and streamline bookings, said Rick Tigner, CEO officer of Jackson Family Wines.

“More importantly though, it has really allowed us to plan for the day, and ensure we have ample staffing and hosts to guarantee each visitor enjoys a great experience,” Tigner said in a statement.

“It has been a great transition for us, and one we plan to keep in place even after restrictions are lifted on June 15. It will continue to allow us to offer tailored visits and provide the customers an experience that best exemplify the estate.”

The properties within Jackson Family Wines will still accept walk-in visitors if space is available, Tigner added.

Before the pandemic, the customers at Comstock Winery were about 70% walk-in visitors and the remaining 30% had reservations. “It’s definitely shifted. Our guests are now used to making reservations,” said Kelly Comstock Ferris, general manager of her family’s winery that opened its doors in 2015 along Dry Creek Road.

“Even if they call in the morning and say, ’Do you have a spot there?’ They are making that outreach.”

Those guests by reservation are likely more to avail themselves to more elaborate wine-and-food pairings at Comstock Winery, including its grilled cheese sandwich flight that costs $75 per guest. Wine club members receive a $15 discount. The winery’s basic tasting flight is $30 per guest.

“I think our food-and-wine paring programming is still growing,” Ferris said.

She added about half of the guests are opting for the food option and it’s increasing in popularity. The winery hired its chef two months before the pandemic struck. “You can’t go wrong with an albacore tuna melt or wagyu Philly cheesesteak. It’s pretty amazing.”

Increase in tasting fees

The move to a reservation-based model also corresponds to an increase in tasting fees. The bank survey noted that the average tasting fee in 2016 was $16 per person for a standard tasting and $30 per guest for a more premium experience. In 2021, the fees were $31 per person for a standard visit and $52 per person for a premium tasting. Wineries typically provide a discount on such fees if the visitor joins the wine club or makes an additional purchase. For example, Dry Creek Vineyard has a tasting fee at $25 per person, which is refundable with a minimum purchase, said Sara Rathburn, director of marketing.

In Sonoma County, the average standard tasting was $30 per person for a standard flight and $50 for the premium visit in the bank’s most recent survey. Napa County was much more expensive with those fees at $58 for a standard flight and $90 per person for a premium experience.

“It’s a reaction to having limited seating last year,” McMillan said of the price spike that occurred over the pandemic. “I don’t think it’s going to come down.”

Wineries also are finding that less guests can generate more revenue because customers who have a more personalized experience end up buying more wine than those on a quick visit, he added.

“It’s a reaction to having limited seating last year. I don’t think it’s going to come down.” ― Rob McMillan

Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyard agreed as she attempts to eventually solve how to place guests inside her facility, such as tastings in the cellar and even at the bar with limited seating with a few bar stools.

“We are fully embracing this kind of new way of looking at our business … People really like it,” Wallace said. “I think we are going to see it in the numbers because we know people are spending more money because they are having a better time. They are not rushed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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