Editorial: Napa Valley Wine Tasting for the Many or the Few?

There was a time, in what now seems like the distant past, that going wine tasting was essentially free.  There was no charge for sips of wine served in glasses the size of egg cups.  And the only place that anyone had ever heard of to taste wine in the United States was Napa Valley.

There never was any reason why the wineries should have given away their product, but they considered it to be marketing.  With the sales of bottles to some of the tasters (either in appreciation of the wine or guilt over taking something for nothing), it must have been close to break-even.  In recent decades, wine tasting has become an activity that attracts hordes of adult tourists and it has become normal for wineries to charge for tastings.  In many cases the cost of a regular tasting was nominal and reserve tastings cost somewhat more.

The past few years have seen a series of crises in Napa Valley.  The greatest calamity, of course, was the Covid pandemic that has taken more than a million lives in the United States.  It closed wineries for tasting and when restrictions were lifted, for a time only outdoor seated tastings were permitted.  Then there were the terrible fires in 2020 that wiped out a year’s worth of grapes – and the resulting revenue – for many producers.  Finally, an inflationary surge sent the prices for fuel and equipment higher.  The increased costs, plus making up for the lost harvest, have been passed along to consumers in the cost of wine and of tastings.

The result has been tasting fees that make visiting some of the better-known wineries impractical for a wide swath of wine enthusiasts.  No matter how gracious the service, the quality of the wines or the overall entertainment value, a fee of $100 or more is going to be prohibitive for many visitors.  Only the well-heeled need apply.

In the short term, this may enable the wineries to bring in more revenue, while managing their labor costs.  But over the longer term, many young people – tomorrow’s best customers – will be driven away.  They may head for other venues or other drinks; there is no shortage of bars and microbreweries in California or elsewhere.  This trend will also lead, over time, to reduced sales in the stores and in the bars.

We at Power Tasting urge the winery owners to create programs for those who would like to learn about wine but cannot afford the high process in Napa Valley.  This might take the form of discounts, reduced prices at slower periods or outreach to populations that are not known for their wealth.  It’s good business and it’s only fair.

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