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Siduri Wines takes the leap with a new Healdsburg tasting room

Adam Lee, the winemaker at Siduri Wines, had to be talked into opening his winery’s new tasting room right off the busy Healdsburg Plaza.

It was a matter of numbers. In a town of almost 11,000 residents, there are 36 tasting rooms - 34 clustered in its small downtown alone.

“In Santa Barbara, there are tons of tasting rooms. How does a place distinguish itself? That was a concern of mine,” Lee said.

Lee, 52, and his wife, Dianna, founded the Siduri pinot noir label in the early 1990s and then became a kind of Horatio Alger story when it was bought in 2015 by Jackson Family Wines. They were already comfortable in their Santa Rosa industrial warehouse location where they made the wine, carving out a small wooden tastings bar for the in-the-know fans drawn to its vast West Coast vineyard selections and minimalist winemaking.

David Bowman, executive vice president of estate brands for Jackson Family Wines, made his pitch to Lee over glasses of wine. (Since the sale, Dianna has left the day-to-day operations to raise their three children.) The new space, at the former Kendall-Jackson Partake location on Healdsburg Avenue, could draw more customers while still reflecting their ethos: They take their wine seriously... themselves, not so much.

“We wanted to make it true to him and true to Siduri,” Bowman said of the label, which is named after the Babylonian goddess of wine. “What it doesn’t feel like to us is a tasting room. Really, it’s a wine lounge where we want people to hang out.”

Indeed, this is not your father’s tasting room. The decor has an urban industrial design, with a motif that appeals to Gen Xers. There’s a turntable with LP records (U2’s “War” is visible from the stacks) and games such as Trivial Pursuit.

Craft beer is on tap and starters and bites are provided by the chefs at Forestville’s Backyard restaurant. There’s also one TV, as Lee is a big Dallas Cowboys fan.

The Siduri Wine Bar and Tasting Lounge opened three months ago at the tail end of the tourist season, and it already feels like a success to the couple.

“We actually had to be won over in some way, in shape and form. That it really works to what we feel comfortable with. And it has,” Lee said over a Journey song playing on the turntable.

But Lee and Jackson Family Wines face the same quandary other vintners are grappling with.

The average winery today is making about ?60 percent of its sales directly to consumers, according to an estimate by Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division.

What is the best way to reach them?

There is a debate in more rural areas of Sonoma and Napa counties over events and the influx of tourists they generate. But there is another debate in the industry about “wine ghettos,” areas of small cities and towns with a large concentration of tasting rooms within walking distance, which create an urban experience.

In Santa Barbara County, for example, cities such as Lompoc and Los Olivos are often packed with visitors on weekends, and locals debate how much is too much.

Woodinville, Washington, 30 minutes from Seattle, also has a large cluster of tasting rooms, capitalizing on the off-putting four-hour drive to the Walla Walla wine region. But even that area has experienced a backlash among visitors, who complain it has lost some of its charm, McMillan said. The emerging trend is the opening of tasting rooms in the warehouse districts of Seattle.

And there is Healdsburg, where local officials earlier this year again worried about how to balance tourism with the needs of local residents. The city has a policy that limits tasting rooms around the plaza to two per block, on opposite sides of the street.

There is also debate within the industry about whether wine ghettos boost sales.

“The whole notion of urban tasting - the jury is still out,” McMillan said.

Research in 2012 by Sonoma State University economics professors Steven S. Cuellar, Robert C. Eyler and Rich Fanti found higher retail sales growth at wineries with lower traffic.

“Wineries with low-density tasting rooms create a more relaxed and enjoyable tasting room experience and build greater brand loyalty, ultimately resulting in greater growth in retail sales than their high-density counterparts,” the summary read.

Indeed, while Siduri has seen more visitors in Healdsburg, the average sales are bigger in Santa Rosa, Lee said.

“The people who come to the winery are seeking you out and they are going to drop more coin,” Lee said.

Tim Meinken, owner and winemaker at Gordian Knot Winery in Healdsburg, said he doesn’t think there will be many more tastings added in the city unless the label is backed by a large wine company that has the financial resources.

“The heyday of high profitability in Healdsburg has come and gone,” said Meinken, who in the past has run unsuccessfully for the City Council. “Unless you have a niche, it’s pretty expensive to operate in Healdsburg.”

When Meinken opened a tasting room for Sapphire Hill Winery in 2002, there were only 11 in town, he said. Some of the smaller ones worked within cooperatives and pooled their resources just to create a presence for visitors.

“Every winery thinks it’s a holy grail,” Meinken said. “I don’t think tasting rooms are a be-all and end-all for a winery.”

Siduri is keeping the Santa Rosa location and using the Healdsburg site to provide more exposure and grow the brand nationally. It now produces 40,000 cases annually, compared to 25,000 prior to its sale.

For Lee, the location also serves as a way to reach new consumers, ones who might not have much exposure to good wine.

The United States is 56th in wine consumption, he noted, and if it went to 26th, there wouldn’t be enough wine produced to serve everyone.

“We need more people drinking more good wine, I think having more exposure to wine,” said Lee. “To a wide variety of people, to younger people, less-affluent people, different parts of the country, it is something we haven’t done particularly well in this business...I think opportunities like this provide an opportunity to a whole different people who are coming to our tasting room.”

Given that it retails from $25 to $65 a bottle, Siduri is not a starter wine. But it can be the next step up for those who have been bitten by the pinot noir bug. Lee himself is an example: When he worked as a wine clerk at a store in Austin, Texas, he grew captivated by pinot noir from Burgundy and California. A Rochioli 1984 pinot noir set him on his path; with $24,000 in seed money, he started his winery.

The Healdsburg space offers a way to reach those new consumers. It’s open later than most tasting rooms, with a ?7 p.m. closing time and ?8 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays to attract locals and those looking for an after-work drink. It offers a buttermilk fried chicken lunch, which, combined with Siduri wine, makes a great picnic.

A big rap music fan, Lee even is thinking about “Adam’s hip-hop night.”

“Maybe it would be a fun thing to see if it flew or not?” Lee joked.

Once consumers get interested, Siduri can help further educate them on the distinctions within pinot noir, still a hot varietal since its boost in the movie “Sideways” in 2004. It has seen double-digit growth in dollar sales on an annual basis ever since.

California tends to produce bigger, richer pinots with higher alcohol levels; Oregon grapes make leaner wines with higher acid and lower alcohol levels.

Lee sees the pendulum swinging back to the leaner types. The sale to Jackson has opened up newer vineyards as the company continues to make greater inroads in Oregon by buying land and boutique wineries.

“When people say, ‘I can say I can perceive a difference,’ that’s a huge step in their wine education,” he said. “We are definitively the next step up. You can discover all these different areas and discover what you like and what you don’t like. To me that’s an important consideration to be that next movement.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223.

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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