A tasting room is a part of a winery, typically located on the premises of the winery's production facilities, at which guests may sample the winery's products. Originally an informal public relations outreach effort of wineries to encourage visitors and build brand awareness and loyalty by dispensing free wine, tasting rooms have increasingly become sophisticated profit centers of winery operations, earning money by charging tasting fees, selling wine directly to consumers, signing new members to the winery's wine club, hosting weddings and other public and private events, and selling various wine and gift-related goods.
A typical tasting room is operated by a winery located in a rural vineyard, where most of the production, bottling, marketing, and distribution takes place. It is usually separated from the main production facilities, either in a room by itself or a separate building, with a designated parking area and landscaped gardens or grounds, often with picnic areas for guests. They are typically open during abbreviated midday business hours, several days per week.
The primary feature of a tasting room is a tended walk-up bar counter where guests are offered small samples from a list of wines produced by the winery, usually for a small fee. Wine is poured by staff that has been trained in knowledge of the winery, who will answer questions and make conversation with guests. In smaller wineries the owners, winemaker, or other executives may personally meet guests and pour wine. Larger operations often treat their tasting room as a sophisticated business unit with its own manager and dedicated staff, who usually work on a commission basis according to how much they sell. Some wineries encourage guests to keep their glass; most apply the fee to wine purchases. Wineries usually pour their most popular wines available at other retail locations (if any), but may also offer limited-release wines that are for sale only on premises. They often withhold their most expensive wines, except for guests who pay a premium fee or who seem likely to be good customers.
Other common features are gifts, food items, and publications for sale. Some wineries offer tours as well. A few have restaurants or markets. Some offer tastings and tours by appointment only, for business or local zoning reasons.
Whereas tasting rooms were once an opportunity to taste or drink wine, economic efficiency and concerns over legal liability for drunk guests have encouraged most wineries to carefully limit the number and size of pours for each guest. Another legal issue is that wineries have been forced by aggressive litigators to comply with the ADA and other handicap issues. Most are now accessible to disabled guests, without steps, gravel walks, and other barriers.
Some wineries operate multiple tasting rooms in various cities. Others, particularly smaller wineries or those that are not easily accessible or permitted for visitors, join together in cooperative arrangements within a single tasting room, often in a nearby town. Some larger wineries have special "reserve" or VIP tasting rooms for handling large parties, industry representatives, and samples of more expensive or "library" wines. In other cases tasting rooms are operated as a commercial venture by an independent party that buys wines from the wineries, often as part of a wine store.
Tasting room economics in the United States
Tasting rooms are still considered an important brand-building feature in the wine business. However, they have become increasingly important as outlets for direct-to-consumer sales, particularly for small wineries that do not have extensive distribution arrangements. By avoiding a middleman and selling high-priced bottles, tasting rooms achieve much greater profits per bottle than in their wholesale operations.
According to one industry survey 59 percent of American wineries charged a tasting fee in their tasting rooms for sampling wine (although many applied the fee toward a wine purchase, if any). Tasting rooms accounted for 43% of all winery sales in California, Washington, and Oregon, and 68% in other states.
- Lance Cutler (February 15, 2006). "Maximizing Tasting Room Effectiveness: Having grown from public relations stopovers to money-making epicenters, our experts discuss the keys to successful tasting rooms.". Wine Business Monthly.
- Ann Cierley (March 29, 2007). "Ask a Wine-Know: Visiting a winery or tasting room". Southwest Voice.
- Matt Krasnowski (September 12, 2004). "Flood of ADA lawsuits irks small businesses". San Diego Union Tribune.
- John A. McKinsey (February 15, 2008). "Tasting Room Liability:Alcohol regulations, slips and falls, the Americans with Disability Act and more.". Wine Business Monthly.
- Cathy Fisher (2007-05-15). "2007 Tasting Room Survey Report:Tasting rooms continue to grow into key profit centers as efforts to communicate with customers become more sophisticated". Wine Business Monthly.
- "Wineries open joint tasting room". San Jose Mercury News. October 23, 1991.
- W. Blake Gray (September 8, 2006). "Tiny pours equal big business: Tasting rooms are a crucial source of income for California wineries". San Francisco Chronicle.