Wineries’ new covid actuality: Increased tasting costs and kegs

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Expect changes when you visit wine country this year. Like the rest of us, wineries are adjusting to a post-pandemic world and are unsure to what extent things will go back in time or what temporary measures taken over the last three years could become permanent. For us consumers, it’s a time to be adventurous but also be patient and let wineries know what’s working and what we’d like to see on our next visit.

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

Tasting bars are back, so to speak.

The Covid restrictions ushered in an era – or at least an interregnum – of socially distanced seated tastings, where flights were ordered off the menu and brought to our table. It was like a restaurant with no food. Some wineries welcomed this change as it placed more emphasis on the wine and less on visiting the winery as a drinking pleasure. But it also meant less interaction between consumers and winery staff. That’s why wineries are now returning to the wine tastings of yesteryear, as they believe consumers want to learn more about the wines they’re tasting through interaction at the bar.

Unless, of course, they don’t.

“Some people want reservations, some people want things to go back to how they were,” says George Hodson, executive director of Veritas Vineyard and Winery west of Charlottesville, Virginia, and current president of the Virginia Wineries Association. So the reserved tastings can stay in place, and customers looking to enjoy a contemplative hour of vinous fun cast a sideways glance at the rowdy, super-spreader crowd at the bar.

In an email exchange, Hodson said the wineries want visitors to expand their knowledge and appreciation of Virginia wine. But apparently consumers have other things on their minds.

“Guests have changed and want experiences instead of just wine tasting,” Hodson said. That means food, music and entertainment. “They consume what they buy locally instead of taking it home,” he added. That means they’re also buying less wine and not building extensive wine collections.

Fees for tastings are likely to increase.

Tasting fees are nothing new, but Covid has accelerated the trend and inflation has increased price pressure on wineries. “Prices of all products are going up, so the tasting fee is pretty much universal,” says Hodson. He hopes this will shrink the market for coaches, which ferry large groups from one winery to the next in an all-day drinking spree.

In California, fees have skyrocketed in the Napa Valley. An “upscale” wine tasting there averages more than $82 per person, down from $30 just six years ago, according to Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle. Save and plan ahead.

Earlier this year, Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, California, announced that it had converted its tasting room to casks and would no longer be serving bottled samples. The switch to kegs supports the winery’s ongoing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and also improves the winery’s bottom line by saving up to 9,000 bottles per year that no longer need to be purchased, bottled and labeled, the general manager said Jason Hass.

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

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

“We sell most of our wine locally and while we recycle our glass, we feel it’s best never to bottle the wine in the first place,” said winery owner Robert Butz.

Butz added that Windridge would like to get visitors to enjoy seated tastings that they can enjoy at their leisure, rather than crowded with strangers at the bar.

“We’re debating whether our approach is the right one, because a tasting is a great way to showcase to customers,” Butz told me. However, “a rushed or unprofessional tasting can be worse than none at all, and at least on the wine flights, the customer can enjoy the wine tastings at their own pace.”

At Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Maryland, a cask facility allows customers to taste an unfinished wine or component of a blend while it is still in the cask. On my last visit, the cask featured a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from Live Edge Vineyard, Black Ankle’s new venture in northern Montgomery County.

“When we taste wine from a cask or cask, we can experiment a bit with what we let the customer taste,” says Sarah O’Herron, co-owner and winemaker at Black Ankle. “We’ve tasted red wines that have only been in cask for six months, single varietals that we would never bottle ourselves, and pure wine wines – basically giving customers a look behind the winemaking process in a way we couldn’t do with bottled wines .” She adds.

So plan ahead if you visit wine country this year. Check out winery websites to see what experiences they offer. Be patient and flexible with your time. And be on the lookout for something new.

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