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Tasting room trends that may last after the pandemic

Will walk-in tasting rooms, where you belly up to the bar with no appointment, be an endangered species once the pandemic passes — whenever that may be?

As tasting room and winery operators have pivoted to outdoor, seated tastings by appointment only in the last few months, some of these moves may last, according to recent discussions with wine industry owners and staff. Here are their conclusions.

Outdoor tasting

Tasting outside is preferred, to keep guests safe while offering bucolic views, as long as wildfires don’t pose a threat.

“I think outdoor tastings are here to stay,” said Lisa Mattson, director of marketing and communications at Healdsburg’s Jordan Vineyard & Winery. “Being outside helps give a sense of place for the diversity of Sonoma. I think now that tourists have enjoyed all their tastings seated outside, they are going to be thinking ‘Why do I want to go into a tasting room?’ I don’t go on vacation to stay indoors, and I don’t think most people do either.”

The winery, Mattson said, monitors weather day by day to decide whether or not to host guests with reservations for the next day.

“If good fall weather holds without rain, we will extend outdoor tastings as much as we can,” she said.

Smaller crowds

With the pandemic, economic downturn and restrictions on restaurants and tasting rooms, tourism has slowed. Even so, there have been benefits to having fewer visitors, allowing wineries to host virtual tastings and give more one-on-one attention on-site.

“We do anticipate that we will see fewer people, which will allow us to take things slower,” said Carol Reber, vice president of Duckhorn Vineyards. Duckhorn has one tasting room in Washington State and five in California, including Duckhorn Vineyards and Paraduxx in Napa Valley and Kosta Browne in Sebastopol.

“The guests will benefit from more one-on-one attention and a more relaxed tasting experience,” Reber said. “We look forward to a time when we can do all this without masks.”

Online tasting, she said, has offered yet another successful way to cater to small groups.

“We have seen tremendous interest in our virtual tastings, and we think they’re here to stay,” she said. “They allow groups of friends, families or colleagues to have a Wine Country experience even if they’re spread out across the country. Technology is allowing us to bring our beautiful wines and own unique style of hospitality directly to people in their homes.”

Unique experiences

Wine lovers want tasting experiences as much as they want safety. Inside or outside, interactive and engaging tastings are still important.

Tasting rooms might follow the lead of Corner 103 in downtown Sonoma. This tasting venue recently won distinction as the best tasting room in the country from 10Best, published by USA Today.

“One of the key drivers in this industry’s success going forward will be to create experiences for wine lovers,” said owner Lloyd Davis. “I’m all about creating an experience.”

Educating wine fans is at the heart of Davis’ participatory tastings. He wants to give visitors a deep dive into the interplay between food and wine. He may offer them a taste of chardonnay solo, then couple it with salmon and finally show the difference a dollop of mascarpone cheese on the salmon creates for the food and wine match.

“As soon as we’re allowed to do indoor tasting, we’ll bring back the food elements,” Davis said. He’s currently hosting outdoor tastings in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The former owner of Sonoma’s Viansa Winery said he first realized how hungry wine fans were to explore food and wine matches when he was heading operations there.

“A lot of my research came from seeing roughly 270,000 guests a year at the winery,” Davis said. “They had a craving for knowledge and they loved food. I looked at it as a void that I could easily fill.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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