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Wineries’ new covid reality: Higher tasting prices and kegs

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Expect changes when you visit wine country this year. Like the rest of us, wineries are adapting to a post-pandemic world, uncertain about just how far things will return to the before-times or which temporary measures adopted in the past three years might become permanent. It’s a time for us consumers to be adventurous but also patient, and to let wineries know what works as well as what we’d like to see the next time we visit.

Here are a few things to expect. Some of these predictions are contradictory, reflecting the uncertainty of the post-pandemic market.

Tasting bars are back, sort of.

Covid restrictions ushered in an era — or at least an interregnum — of seated, socially distanced tastings, with flights ordered off a menu and brought to our table. It was like a restaurant without food. Some wineries relished that shift, as it placed more emphasis on the wine and less on the winery visit as a drinking engagement. But it also meant less interaction between consumer and winery staff. So wineries are now bringing back the belly-up-to-the-bar tastings of old, believing consumers want the interaction at the bar to learn about the wines they are tasting.

Unless of course, they don’t.

“Some people want reservations, some people want it to go back to the way it was” with walk-in tastings at the bar, says George Hodson, chief executive of Veritas Vineyard and Winery west of Charlottesville, Va., and current president of the Virginia Wineries Association. So those seated, reserved tastings may stay, with customers seeking a reflective hour of vinous pleasure casting side-eye at the raucous superspreader crowd at the bar.

In an email exchange, Hodson said wineries want visitors to broaden their knowledge and appreciation of Virginia wine. But apparently consumers have other things in mind.

“Guests have changed and want experiences rather than just wine tastings,” Hodson said. That means food, music and entertainment. “They’re consuming what they purchase on-site rather than taking it home,” he added. This implies they’re also purchasing less and not building extensive wine collections.

Fees for tastings are likely to increase.

Tasting fees are nothing new, but covid accelerated the trend, and inflation has increased price pressure on wineries. “Prices are increasing for all products, so the fee for tasting is near universal,” Hodson says. He hopes that will shrink the market for tour buses shuttling large groups from one winery to the next, in a day-long drunk fest.

In California, fees have skyrocketed in Napa Valley. An “elevated” wine tasting there averages more than $82 per person, compared to $30 just six years ago, as reported by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle. Save up, and plan ahead.

Here come the kegs.

Earlier this year, Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles, Calif., announced that it had switched its tasting room to kegs and would no longer pour samples from bottles. Shifting to kegs helps the winery’s ongoing effort to reduce its carbon footprint, as well as the winery’s bottom line by saving as many as 9,000 bottles a year that will no longer need to be purchased, filled and labeled, general manager Jason Haas said.

“What’s the most useless glass bottle?” Haas asked rhetorically. “One that never leaves the winery.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Windridge Vineyards in Darnestown, Md., began experimenting with kegs in its tasting room late last year and now has three wines on tap.

“We sell the vast majority of our wine on-site, and while we do recycle our glass, we feel the best way is to never put the wine in the bottle to begin with,” winery owner Robert Butz said.

Butz added Windridge would like to steer visitors toward seated tastings they can enjoy at leisure rather than crowding with strangers at the bar.

“We are debating if our approach is right, because a tasting is a great way to get in front of the customer,” Butz told me. However, “a hasty or unprofessional tasting may be worse than none at all, and at least with the wine flights, the customer samples at their own pace.”

At Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md., a keg setup allows customers to sample an unfinished wine or a component of a blend while it is still in barrel. On my recent visit, the keg offered a taste of sauvignon blanc from the Live Edge Vineyard, Black Ankle’s new project in northern Montgomery County.

“Tasting wine from a barrel or keg lets us play around a little with what we let customers taste,” says Black Ankle co-owner and winemaker Sarah O’Herron. “We have tasted reds that have been in barrel only six months, single varietals we would never bottle by themselves, and pure press wines — basically letting customers peek behind the winemaking process in ways we would not be able to do with bottled wines,” she adds.

So when visiting wine country this year, plan ahead. Look at winery websites to see what experiences they are offering. Be patient and flexible with your time. And be on the lookout for something new.