‘There’s no way we’d go back’: will Covid-19 end free wine tastings forever? | Food

August 17, 2020

For decades free wine tastings have been an essential part of the Australian cellar door experience. They helped turn a nation of beer drinkers on to the charms of shiraz, sémillon and sagrantino.

Before the Covid-19 shutdown, there was already a move away from this tradition: the number of Australian wineries charging for tastings went from 29% in 2017-18 to 50% in 2019, according to Wine Australia’s 2019 cellar door survey report. As wineries have reopened post-shutdown, more are questioning the value of giving away their product free.

“My gut feeling is that within the next year or two free tastings will be very much the exception rather than the rule,” says winemaker Andrew Thomas of Thomas Wines in the Hunter Valley. “And not just in the Hunter.”

Pre-shutdown, Thomas Wines had a mix of complimentary and paid tastings. But after closing for more than two months, and seeing the wholesale market disappear, the idea of pouring free wine in the hope of making a few sales became increasingly unpalatable. Now, the cellar door offers two tiers of paid tasting – with a strong encouragement to book ahead.

“The way that we present the wines hasn’t changed too much,” admits Thomas. But since he started charging he’s noticed that visitors are paying more attention to the wines and the stories behind them. “Having that cover charge puts more of a value on the experience so it’s been very positive in that respect.”

“When I first came into the role, I was always a bit confused as to how you could taste all these wines for free,” Lachlan Aird recalls. The brand manager of McLaren Vale winery Alpha Box and Dice likens it to turning up at a restaurant and asking for a sample from the kitchen before ordering.

And yet thousands of litres have been given away since the winery launched in 2008. With bedpans as spittoons and wines boasting names like Golden Mullet Fury, the irreverent cellar door attracted a young crowd from its inception. As word got out that it was a great place to end a day trip in the region, the car park began to fill up with cars, minibuses and even coaches disgorging tipsy revellers.

A busy weekend which included live music at Alpha Box and Dice’s cellar door in 2019.

It was, Aird concedes, great fun. But he had a nagging feeling that the pleasantly chaotic party vibe was distracting from the winery’s mission – encouraging consumers to embrace lesser-known “alternative” varietals that thrive in McLaren Vale. There were also surprises, like the day he was bombarded with notifications after someone stole a doorknob and began proudly displaying the trophy on social media.

For several years Aird wondered whether there was a better way to interact with consumers. The first step was introducing paid tastings for groups of eight or more. Then, when the cellar door was forced to close earlier this year it provided the perfect opportunity to create a more structured experience for all visitors. Now tastings must be booked in advance and a host guides groups of up to six through four brackets of paired wines.

“It’s definitely a different vibe to what most people would associate with us,” he admits, but he sees it as an outward sign of a winery that “has grown up a lot over the last few years. There’s not the same level of chaos and as fun as that was, it’s not the area that we want to be working in anymore.”

In wine regions internationally, like those across France and the US, tasting room fees are already commonplace.

Though Thomas suggests the prospect of backlash or a loss in visitation puts some wineries off making the change, he’s had an almost universally positive response from customers. “Looking back, it’s actually been quite good for our business,” Thomas says, adding that it might just be “the best thing to come out of Covid”. He also surmises that the people who are unwilling to pay $10 or $20 for the tastings were unlikely to be among their top customers anyway.

Kylie White, who looks after PR for several wineries in the region, echoes that sentiment. “The winemakers work incredibly hard to share their product and expertise, and it’s been a lifelong struggle to put a dollar value on that.”

“I’ve spoken to three different winemakers who’ve had to change their offerings in a big way but they’ve all said to me ‘There’s no way we’d go back. Even though the numbers are smaller, we’re getting a higher spend per person and we’re taking more than we ever have. Why would we ever change that?’”

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