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.”
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.
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.