Sebastopol wine bar gives consumers a regional tasting experience
The North Coast wine tasting experience has changed a great deal since the old days of an upturned barrel and free pours.
They have gotten more varied and unique. There’s everything from blind tastings and blending classes to sipping favorite vintages in wine caves. Along with variety, the cost also has increased to as much as $50 per person at many wineries.
There are extra elaborate tasting experiences, too, such as the sparkling suite at Domaine Carneros where for $500 a couple, you can could look out your own private château balcony to lush vineyards while sampling sparkling wines and pinot noirs along with caviar and charcuterie. The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended indoor tastings.
This viticultural arms race, however, has not translated into more daily visitors for local wineries. That’s because in Sonoma County alone there are about 300 wine tasting rooms and more consumers now prefer to visit fewer wineries while on vacation.
“Today, the consumer is redefining what a visit to Wine Country is all about,” Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank, wrote as part of the bank’s annual survey of regional tasting room visits.
Amid this changing marketplace, some local entrepreneurs recently opened the Region wine bar in Sebastopol’s Barlow outdoor eating, drinking and shopping mecca. Their new venture takes its inspiration more from the accessibility and affordability of area craft brewpubs to try to lure a new generation of wine drinkers.
“If you don’t change you may not exist,” said Kerry Thedorf, a co-founder of Region along with partner Johan Eide. The partners, along with two other silent investors, launched the enterprise for less than $1 million.
The change can be seen immediately when customers show up at Region. They sign in digitally to get a wine pour card to link to their credit cards. To start tasting, they enter a room where they can select up to 50 different wines from small producers across Sonoma County. Consumers access the wines via self-serve stations that use argon gas to preserve them.
A Region employee can help guide people toward wines that may pique their interest and their palate. The process allows customers to explore different wine regions within the county, from Zo Wines sauvignon blanc from the Dry Creek Valley to a grenache from the Sonoma Coast made by Thirty-Seven Wines. The card also allows them to sample a wide array of wines inexpensively.
Region has 1-ounce pours for less than $2. There are also 2.5-ounce and 5-ounce pours available. The biggest pours can range from $15 to $30 for the most expensive cabernet sauvignon. A vast sampling of different wines can be tasted for under $25. And the experience comes with a view from an outdoor patio, and without pressure to buy wine bottles.
The partners say the goal is to put the customer in charge of tasting wines they prefer among a range of small purveyors, most of whom they likely had not known about before entering the wine bar. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional winery tasting room, in which after sampling wines an employee wants to sign up customers for the wine club.
Thedorf, who has worked in marketing at Duckhorn Wine Co. in Napa and Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards in Geyserville, said the business practices of many winery tasting room operations are “like three to five years behind the times.”
That could partly explain why the number of wine tasting room visitors has been on the decline. Last year, average monthly visitors to a Sonoma County winery were 1,228, compared with 1,098 in 2015, according to the most recent Silicon Valley Bank survey. In Napa County, visitors dropped from 1,644 to 1,372 during the same period.
Thedorf likened the current tasting room model to a timeshare rental pitch, in which the customer feels compelled to sign up for the wine club but likely will drop out later.
“You made the destination and feel obligated ... like I have to buy a bottle,” said Eide, who also operates a patent law practice in Windsor.
Region has bottles of wine on sale for customers who want to take home favorites, and their purchases will get them on the email list for those wineries. However, Eide and Thedorf are aiming for the wine tasting experience to be less intimidating with a focus on discovery.
For example, Eide noted a couple from Cupertino recently visited and were captivated by AldenAlli, the winery formed by Dan Kosta, and bought six bottles of the wines after the tastings. Kosta achieved success by founding the cult pinot noir winery Kosta Browne in Sebastopol. Now after selling his stake in that winery, he has focused on a much smaller venture far less known to consumers.