Following on our discussion of staff and atmosphere and the impact of those factors on a tasting experience, it’s equally important to discuss the wines themselves. Not in terms of quality mind you; it goes without saying that a quality wine will win you fans, but more in terms of the way that they are offered and showcased at the tasting bar.
Vineyard visits are all about the experience really. Otherwise, why not order the wine online and have them delivered to your front door, or visit your local wine boutique to fill out your rack? No, consumers want an immersive experience. They want the wind-in-their-hair feeling of driving from spot to spot, and they want to be impressed in one way or another, by each and every visit. This experiental burden, coupled with the explosion of wine and wine tours as a hobby, has placed the responsibility squarely at the feet of the vineyard to provide more bang for the consumer buck. Vineyards are forced to meld a sharp business savvy with strong wine-making skills.
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
The more wines you have open for tasting the better an opportunity your visitors will have to find one they like, and to contribute to your coffers. If your Private Reserve isn’t tastable, why on earth would I blow fifty dollars on it if I’m not sure I like it? If I do like it enough after tasting, I’ll wage a minor battle against my conscience but usually walk out clutching the bottle giddily. My tummy rules my wallet as far as food and wine goes and I have no reservations about treating myself if I think something is worthwhile. Closing off your high end wines from the tasting list is like telling a visitor that they are not elite enough to try the wine and expecting them to buy it blindly on your recommendation is just about the stupidest thing I’ve heard.
Even with everyday table wines, less, in the case of tasting, is not more. I may think your Riesling stinks to the high heavens, but if you also have your Chardonnay on the go, you at least have a chance at redemption. So open up, show off, and to quote the eternal Pat Benetar “hit me with your best shot”. The wines we bought were from small places that spent time with us, let us try as much as we wanted, and made recommendations. Bottles upon bottles came home with us, even though we swore that the second day of tasting would be purchase free. Why? Because once we tried and liked, it’s very hard not to buy. We invariably walked out with one or two bottles from tasting list promiscuous folks; the vineyards with 3-5 available to try? Nada. Mainly because the wines they were showcasing weren’t varietals, or styles that either of us enjoys. Did they have other wines that we would have loved to try? Absolutely. We even asked if we could sample some offlist ones at various places and were told ‘no those aren’t available for tasting’ in every place but one. In that one place, our inquiry was met with a cheeky grin from the staffer, who admitted to having ‘accidently’ opened a bottle of each of the offlist wines we were curious about the previous day. Apparently he has difficulty reading the labels. The vineyard? Well it was one of our favourite stops of the entire trip.
Reasonable Price Per Tasting
One issue sure to remain contentious on both sides of the fence is the tasting fee. Me? I’m of the opinion that they’re perfectly acceptable as long as they’re reigned in by some lingering notion of reality. I acknowledge the fact that there are people who come in, sample every bottle available, and then leave without a second glance, but then there are people like me, who do try every on the list that piques my curiousity but who has a strong interest in actually buying wine. For me it’s not about as much free wine as possible, but about retrying old favourites, finding new treasures, and rounding out my ‘must have’ list for the next trip. It’s important to me to make sure I’m buying the best wine that a vineyard has to offer (according to personal tastes). I am not a wealthy person, I’m just out of graduate school, and every penny spent is painstakingly measured and weighed. I’ll blow a pile of cash on an outstanding bottle, but not if I haven’t tried it, and not if I had to carefully pick and choose between wines to try because the fees required mid-denomination bills and not change.
Better yet, why not talk free? Maybe it’s the greedy consumerist in me, or maybe I’m just not understanding enough about the plight of the winemaker, but the more I have to pay for a sample the less likely I am to try the wine, the fewer wines I’m liable to try and the fewer I’m likely to walk out the door with.
The odd thing seems to be that the smaller vineyards, who seemingly would be more in need of a little extra revenue, tend to be the ones who like to chat with you, and so long as you’re not guzzling down freebies on some sort of bender, they tend also to waive the tasting fees. Generosity is not restricted solely to the little guys mind you. Case in point was Royal de Maria, who just give you a free pour of everything they’ve got to showcase their product and help you to find one that you really like. They’re not exactly a minor player in the wine arena either; Royal deMaria is nothing to sneeze at in the icewine world. Further on them in a future post, but allow me to say here that I believe it was upwards of 8 samples we were treated to by a vineyard with 2 world wine records, and per bottle prices that seldom see the underside of a hundred dollars.
Those that do insist that you pay charge generally from fifty cents to a dollar for 1-2 ounces of wine. Really not that bad when it comes down to it, and I don’t mind tossing some change if the staff was good and the wines warranted a fee. A buck here or there isn’t asking too much in the grand scheme of things, especially if it allowed me to taste as many wines as I was interested in and find one that tickled my fancy.
I really, really, really have to object though, to vineyards that suffer from the unfortunate malady of MPS*. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrible disease, it basically amounts to someone trying to cover severe shortcomings in one area by beefing up on bravado, ego, and utter ridiculousness.
A certain vineyard, which will remain nameless, managed to pull off the single worst tasting experience I have ever had. Not only were they the aforementioned Wal-Mart chair sitters, but they also charged $2 for every single taste of their wine. Michelle and I were about to walk out, seeing that they didn’t have anything we were dying to try (see Variety below), when we figured heck, let’s give one of the two Rieslings a shot. We share samples all the time, to save us some money, and also because we really don’t need a whole sample to ourselves to decide whether or not we like a wine. So one Riesling. Two bucks. At this point I realize I’ve left my change purse in the car, and run out to get it. Upon my return I find Michelle glowering over the counter of the tasting bar at me and the staff paying absolutely no attention to her. In front of her sat two glasses. Four dollars. Our next stop was supposed to be a bank machine because we were running low on coin, could we afford this? I scramble to count my change. Including dimes I can just scrape by.
The wines? Average. The service? Wretched. The fee? Well apparently we were supposed to be happy to pay that much because they ‘give 2 oz. so that enthusiasts can fully experience the flavour of [their] wines’. Not only did I not want 2 oz., I also only wanted to try one of the Rieslings, not both. Their other wines were $3 per sample, enough said. Looking back at the hasty tasting note that was scribbled, it consists of only one word: “Shitheads”.
And there you have it folks. This isn’t an exhaustive list by far, but it was based solely on our last trip to the Niagara region and some of the encounters we had. These four categories are very simplistic and don’t even touch upon tours, availability and the quality of the wines themselves.