By Tom Marquardt And Patrick Darr
A recent column we wrote on the increase in tasting fees at California wineries struck a chord with many of you. We received several emails from wine consumers who fondly remembered their free sips in Napa Valley tasting rooms and, like us, wondered if the trend towards pricey tastings will inevitably kill the proverbial goose.
Time will tell.
Steve told us of the time he traveled to California wine country as a young man and being appalled by paying $5 for a tasting at Franciscan and $15 at Coppola. Today those prices would be a bargain.
So far, the steep tasting fees do not seem a barrier for most folks. According to a report from the Silicon Valley Bank, tastings were up 22 percent in Napa Valley last year despite an average tasting fee of $81. It was down 25 percent in Sonoma County. But put this in perspective: improving numbers are still below that from pre-pandemic years. Will it bounce back as the economy improves and consumers look for travel alternatives?
As I talk to more wine enthusiasts who visited California, I hear more disappointment in the tasting room experience. Many said they pared back on the number of wineries they toured. The cost is staggering for a couple looking for a fun time: three winery stops for two people at an average cost of $81 a person is $486! That per diem cost is on par with Disney World.
The tasting room experience is critical to wineries for reasons you can probably imagine if you’ve been there. A person who engages with a friendly, knowledgeable staff feels a kinship that leads to shipping a case of wine home. That person may even join the producer’s wine club to keep the experience going with a fresh bottle of wine shipped home every month. It’s a business recipe that works well for a wine producer who would rather pocket the profit than share it with a wholesaler and retailer.
Club membership, however, is often short-lived. How many of you have had buyer’s remorse when you got home and wondered if the wine you ordered was the same as you tasted in California? Now you belong to another club of people who got swept up in the tasting experience and after a few glasses of wine managed to justify spending more money for a bottle than they would have spent back home in a more sober moment.
A friend of ours got trapped in the moment and ordered a few bottles of $100-plus sauvignon to take back to the hotel. Her husband was flabbergasted when she returned, but she said the winemaker was so sweet and the wine so good.
Even though we’ve learned our lesson over the years, we still buckle to temptation. Sometimes the price is right and more often the wine cannot be found anywhere but the producer’s tasting room.
Club memberships are a major component to the lucrative direct-to-consumer sales that have opened up after states dismantled their prohibitions to out-of-state alcohol shipments. Maryland, for instance, did so when wine enthusiasts from other states visited Maryland wineries and couldn’t ship home new discoveries that weren’t available in their home towns.
Direct-to-consumer sales account for 68 percent of the sales of premium wineries, according to SVB.
Although a lot of people join wine clubs, a lot quit after a couple of years. This level of churn is alarming to wine producers who have ramped up promotions to make sure they are adding more customers than they are losing. One thing they promote is exclusive access to wines that are not distributed anywhere else or are produced in limited quantity. It’s hard to face down the temptation of a wine selection you fear won’t be available in local stores.
Chalk Hill is in the Class of 1972, a group of wineries founded that year in Sonoma County. Chalk Hill AVA is a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley AVA and is noted for its rolling hills.
We’ve always known the producer for its consistently good sauvignon blanc, but it makes other wines – most notably an austere chardonnay we have grown to enjoy.
Here are a few recent releases we liked:
Chalk Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill Appellation 2022 ($27). Melon and herbal notes in the nose with flavors of melon, lemon, grass and a touch of honey. Very smooth and elegant.
Chalk Hill Estate Windy Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($52). Using grapes from a single block at an elevation of 630 feet, the producer has teased more concentration and aromatics from rocky soil. Melon and stone fruit flavors abound with hints of lime and herbs.
Chalk Hill Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2022 ($26). A real mouthful of pleasure with notes of apple, tropical fruit and some interesting cinnamon and spice elements.
Chalk Hill Founders Block Chardonnay Chalk Hill AVA 2020 ($125). A very special chardonnay displaying melon and pineapple notes framed with lovely accents of cinnamon and nutmeg. Aged in 100 percent new French oak and displaying a creamy finish.
Dos Lusiadas Pinteivera Douro 2018 ($38). We love discovering hidden gems from Portugal. This one made from touriga nacional grapes is a collaboration between grape growers and Rhone Valley legend Michel Chapoutier. It is surprisingly concentrated with a violet aroma and dark fruit flavors with a hint of graphite.
ONX Indie Rosé 2020 ($28). Inspired by indie movies, this tempranillo rosé has fresh and lively red fruit character with a dash of citrus.
Dutcher Crossing Proprietor’s Reserve Petit Sirah 2018 ($36). We loved the lush plum and huckleberry flavors with a shot of espresso in this dense and rich wine from Dry Creek Valley. Dutcher Crossing makes a lot of zinfandel and Rhone-grape wines that deserve to be explored.
Dutcher Crossing Bernier-Sibary Zinfandel 2018 ($50). Petite sirah, carignane and mataro go into this luxurious blend that is dominated by black cherry and plum notes. Generous aromatics and a hint of spice that makes zinfandel a great match to Thanksgiving fare.
Harken Chardonnay Barrel Fermented California 2021 ($12-16). A boisterous, buttery and oaky chardonnay is for those that love this classic California style. Tropical fruit and toasty oak notes are definitely a great value and crowd pleasing.
Root:1 Colchagua Valley Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Chile 2022 ($12). Citrus and pear dominate with refreshing acidity and a clean finish. Great value!