Report: Raise the Bar for Free Wine Tasting

Survey of 260 Oregon tasting rooms identifies areas for improvement

by Peter Mitham
wine tasting room survey results
A survey of tasting rooms in Oregon highlighted how the state's diverse geography affects the hospitality business, among other findings.
Ashland, Ore.—Initial findings from a survey of Oregon tasting rooms are intriguing and touch on some of the hot-button issues facing tasting room managers: finding competent staff, providing appropriate compensation and converting tasting room visitors into loyal, ongoing purchasers.

Undertaken by Capiche Wine Marketing & PR with the endorsement of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, Southern Oregon Winery Association and Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, the first large-scale survey of Oregon tasting rooms yielded a massive amount of data from across the state.

Preliminary results were originally presented at the Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland this past February. A white paper summarizing the findings was released publicly in late April and will hit the road for discussion in Oregon’s three key wine-touring regions this summer.

“As we’ve had preliminary discussions with people, they’ve asked some really salient questions,” said Vicki Purslow, wine market analyst with Capiche. “The best approach for that now is to hold these focused group discussions in each of the AVAs and then to be able to glean the context and meaning of those data.”

A total of 260 tasting rooms participated, representing 72% of the industry’s primary tasting rooms. Data was gathered from July to December 2016. The most participants came from Willamette Valley, followed by Southern Oregon and the Columbia Gorge AVAs. The Walla Walla, Columbia and the Snake River valleys also were represented. More than 80 site visits were conducted.

While the research parallels Silicon Valley Bank’s annual tasting room study https://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=168737 (the most recent looked at 2015 performance), Capiche digs deeper into the Oregon context with a larger number of respondents. The result is a finer grain of data.

For example, Silicon Valley Bank found that 21% of wineries in Oregon find it impossible or difficult to find tasting room staff, while Capiche found that less than 5% of the industry finds it impossible to find “competent and committed” tasting room staff. The majority find it “doable with some effort.”

Differences across the state

Wineries in the Columbia Gorge AVA have the most trouble finding staff, according to the Capiche data, with 7% considering it impossible. Southern Oregon is more optimistic, with no one finding it impossible and 73% of the industry saying it’s not difficult at all (equal to the Willamette Valley, although 3% of Willamette wineries consider it “impossible”).

“I look at the Columbia Gorge and I think, proximity-wise, they aren’t isolated in quite the way pockets of Southern Oregon are,” Purslow told Wines & Vines. “It begs a lot of questions.”

This is where she hopes the group discussions will add texture and nuance to the raw data.

The study also notes that Oregon’s unemployment rate is at its lowest in more than 40 years. It urges wineries to be competitive in terms of the compensation and benefits they provide tasting room staff.

“Sadly, one tasting room said the benefit was ‘a job.’ This sort of attitude will become a problem for hiring in a climate in which Oregon has the lowest unemployment rate since before 1976,” the report states.

Purslow points to the growth of the marijuana industry as a particular factor, especially in southern Oregon. “I live in a rural region in Oregon, and the grows are increasing exponentially,” she said. “Somebody’s got to help harvest that.”

Making the most of your visitors

Another key topic that jumps out of both the Silicon Valley Bank report and the data Capiche gathered is how wineries make the most of tasting room visits.

Silicon Valley Bank found that Oregon wineries charge tasting fees just below the national average, at $13.33 for a standard tasting and $26.51 for a reserve-tier experience. The fees behind the average run from $1 to $55, Capiche found.

Then there’s the knotty question of when to waive the fee—for one or two bottles, or in exchange for wine club membership?

Some wineries waive it altogether, declining even to charge a fee, but the average consideration is for a purchase of two bottles. Still, Capiche found a single bottle is all many wineries require. Capiche encourages wineries to consider setting a higher limit.

“If a customer can have a fee waived with the purchase of one bottle of wine, the customer is most apt to purchase just one bottle of wine. Tasting rooms are encouraged to increase the minimum purchase amount to two or more bottles,” the report states.

Purslow suggests many wineries could even secure additional wine club members in exchange for the tasting fee.

“A tasting room really should consider there’s no waiver of a fee unless you join (the) wine club,” she said. “It’s the wine club that really generates the revenue because you have the ongoing purchases.”

Michael Donovan, a board member and past president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association who oversees Irvine Vineyards in Ashland, Ore., as managing director, said Capiche’s preliminary findings underscore where improvement is needed. Better continuing education for tasting room staff is critical, and as Irvine prepares to open its own tasting room in June, the findings regarding tasting fees and when to waive them are something Donovan is keeping in mind.

“Tasting rooms are dependent on converting those visits into sales, and that occurs either in direct sales going out the door that day, or can occur in signing (visitors) up as wine club members,” he said.

Donovan notes that many California wineries have found success with an elevated, by-appointment tasting experience that’s complimentary to wine club members. A few Oregon wineries have begun offering such tastings, and Donovan sees the potential for them to increase across the state.

However, the key importance of the Capiche study are the insights into what’s happening in Oregon now, said Tom Danowski, president and CEO of the Oregon Wine Board.

“A trend that’s heavily influenced by California, as many national trends are, can be interesting. Data specific to Oregon and specific to an AVA is extremely valuable and very hard to come by,” he said.

Capiche is working with Byron Marlowe, an instructor in hospitality business management at Washington State University’s Carson School of Business in Richland, Washington. “My hope is that by fall I will have something that can be written specific to each AVA,” said Capiche’s Purslow.

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