Visiting wine expert Robert Joseph gave an interesting speech in Cape Town this week, and I can’t say I agree with all of it. However, he did make an interesting comment when he questioned the wisdom of wine estates charging visitors for tastings. According to a news release on his speech, he said that those wineries which seem to think that they don’t charge for tastings are wrong:
“Everybody who walks through your door is paying you – with his or her time. They could be spending – note the term – that hour on the beach, or shopping or in a gallery. Charging for tastings means that you are not doing anyone a favour, and you have to offer value for your customers’ money,” said Joseph.
I have had some wonderful tastings in the Cape Winelands, but I have also left a tasting room without paying the designated fee, because the service was unimpressive, and the estate (Kanonkop) had none of its finer wines on offer. In fact, it had just two offerings and wanted to be paid for a thimbleful of each.
But what do our experts make of it all?
Wine scribe and vendor Neil Pendock:
At the Pendock wine gallery @ taj (the Taj Hotel in CT) we do both. When an exhibition opens during the First Thursdays perambulation around Cape Town every month, tastings are free and the curator speaks about the wines which constitute the exhibit. Otherwise we charge R30 to taste 6 wines to cover our costs, as we buy the wines from producers and receive very limited tasting stocks. It’s like admission to museums and public art galleries. Some charge, some do not, depending on finances and philosophy. We wish all our tastings would be free, but cannot afford to do so.
Warwick CEO Mike Ratcliffe:
If you give something away, it loses its value. If you charge a fair amount of money for a service or product that you are offering, you should be sure to over-deliver in every aspect of that service or product. Quality wine consumers are not looking for free wine – they are looking for value – at every price point. Quality wine consumers are searching for authentic wine experiences. Activities like tasting, touring, education, food pairing and nature all play a role in delivering the appropriate experience. On the other hand, the tasting is in effect the sales pitch and this delicate balancing act should be acknowledged. A sale is not the stated intention. At Warwick our stated objective for providing a tasting is start a relationship that can be carried forward for years to come. We believe wholeheartedly in reimbursing any tasting fees fully at purchase and this has worked well for more than a decade. Follow us @WarwickWine and join the conversation.
Food and wine guru Michael Olivier:
I know Robert Joseph and admire much if what he talks and writes about. Having worked at Boschendal in the 1980s, we were inundated on Friday afternoons with students who wanted to have wine for free. I think much the same happened in Stellenbosch where most of the wineries were close to the University. I feel that to charge for a tasting is fair if the amount is refunded when a purchase is made.
Lawyer Emile Myburgh:
For us lawyers, time IS money. While I’m tasting wine, I could be billing time, in fact, maybe I should bill the winery for my time.
Bartinney CEO Rose Jordaaan:
We don’t currently charge for tastings on the estate as we feel that people have made an effort to come and experience the Bartinney story on-site. We do charge for tastings at the Bartinney Wine Bar (in Stellenbosch), however! We also only offer the 3 Bartinney wines to taste, not the other brand offerings we produce (eg the Noble Savage collection, the Brut Savage, Elevage). And we also reserve the right not to allow tastings of wines which are almost sold out. We want people who visit Bartinney to feel they have received a treat and something special and are as privileged to be here as we feel privileged they have made the effort to come.
Former SATSA CEO Michael Tatalias:
There certainly is something to be said for a small charge – in that it forces the wine farmer to consider their wine tasting and customer interaction as a business – where the focus needs to be on superior customer service, and the farmer needs to apply significant thinking to the whole experience to make it an event worth paying for. Also it makes them consider it a business (either on its own, or a supplement to the winery itself, and thus a potential income earner), which means that days open and hours open have to be aimed at the tourists, not at what suits the farmer – which then forces the farmer to hire dedicated staff, and that is good news. Far too many farms offer a slapdash experience, and are never open on Sundays or public holidays – when the local tourist wants to spend money. Also they need to decide if and how to deal with different types of tourists: local, international; kombi loads, cars/self-drives, coach loads. All need to be handled differently, and carefully so as not to overwhelm other user groups. But to make it too expensive to keep the riff-raff away is also risky, as it is very easy to out-price oneself. The price needs to be realistic, and to cover only an aspect of fixed costs (like the wines used, or the staff on duty). Farmers considering charging need to go and benchmark the opposition, and see what is charged by very well-known establishments (great brands) and see what the customer experience is like, plus ease of access (road conditions, signage, etc). Will you offer food, and if so of what quality? Kanonkop and Warwick are across the street neighbours, and have completely different approaches to customer service and the experience on offer – both work, and Warwick needs to be different, as Kanonkop is/was the established brand. Other top brand wine experiences: L’Ormarins is different (given Johann Rupert’s resources), but the Franschhoek Motor Museum is a great way to add value to the wine experience, where the wine tasting is secondary to the cars – but right there and very accessible with excellent levels of staff service, food and tea. And they only charge for the people actually doing a wine tasting. Overall, I reckon it is a good thing to consider an entrance fee, or at least a tasting fee – as it forces the farmer to think carefully through the options and take it seriously and treat it like a proper business. Far too many farms do not. The old advice is also true – if you aren’t going to do it well, don’t offer it at all.
Jeremy Sampson, Executive Chairman of InterbrandSampsonDeVilliers:
I totally agree with the concept of providing value. However, that means different things to different people around the world. In South Africa I suspect that to some the prevailing culture is that anything that is free gets little or no respect, and is open to potential abuse. The writer has a background in journalism, is based in the UK and travels the wine world as a commentator of note, so knows how to write a good story. Locally it is at the discretion of the farm/estate to decide on the need to have an entry fee (as at Vergelegen) and/or a tasting fee that can fall away if purchases are made. Wine estates sometimes think visitors simply want to drink and perhaps buy wine – and some do – but many will have children in tow and will want to enjoy the total brand experience of being in the country in idyllic surrounds as at Spier, Fairview, Warwick, and many others. The writer is correct that everyone has options as to how they ‘spend’ their time, a reason to make an estate a seductive destination brand of note, that the visitor will return to – and to charge what the market will stand.
Dino Fagas from Prosopa restaurant in Pretoria:
I agree that wineries should charge for tastings, but perhaps should waive this charge if someone buys at least a case of wine, or wines for a minimum qualifying value. Also they should know when trade people are there (or if trade people introduce themselves with a business card) so they do not get charged – because they are the ones promoting their wines in stores, etc. People are there to see and taste what the wineries have to offer. They choose to be there instead of on the beach. In Europe you even pay to be on the beach! Wineries spend good money refurbishing their tasting rooms and making their offerings more attractive in order to promote their brands further. And, at the end of the day, they are there to make a profit.
Corlien Morris from Wine Concepts:
I’m afraid I don’t think there’s a blanket rule for this one. Some farms have small productions of pretty expensive wines and they can’t just simply open bottle after bottle for free. However there’s always a way to handle this in order to get the best of both worlds. A farm on Stellenbosch main routes would definitely get streams of students drinking away in the tasting room if everything’s for free, where the guy out in the sticks would probably be all too happy with every single person who made the effort to drive all the way out to his farm. Then we also have to remember that today’s student is tomorrow’s CEO and if you treat him well as a student he will support you when he actually has the money to do so. My feeling is that a minimal fee would keep the drinking student out and bring the really interested student closer. For the guy on the highway, I think it’s fair to charge a fee for tasting, but it makes sense to waive the fee should the customer actually purchase a minimum amount of wine. What’s the minimum becomes the next question, then? I know there are farms who offer free tastings; however there’s a fee if you wish to taste their top super-expensive flagship wine, selling for over R500 a bottle. That also seems fair to me. I don’t mind paying for a tasting, but then the person on the other end must know what they’re talking about and give me value for my money and not simply pour wine after wine and leave me to figure things out for myself. I don’t like paying for bad service! Give me an experience and the money is all yours.
If you charge me to taste your wines, make it a pleasurable experience, offer a good variety, and make me feel special. And refund the fee if I buy a bottle or more. If you have turned your wine farm into a family fun park, and it is noisy and unpleasant, with an over-crowded tasting room, then forget it. Offer me a relaxed cellar tour and a tasting with your winemaker. As they used to do at Klein Constantia and still do at Warwick. Then you will have a friend, a fan, a brand ambassador, and a customer for life.
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