The Wine Country Tasting Room Is Dead. But Long Live Wine Country

June 9, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
The Restaurant at CIA Copia
Bob McClenahan

Forget standing at a tasting bar. A trip to California’s wine country today means comedy shows, art museums, cabanas at pool parties, and interactive dinners—all with a glass in hand.

“People are no longer willing to just come into a tasting room, pay their tasting fees, try five wines, and move on,” explains Jim Morris, vice president of estate management and guest relations at Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley. “The tasting room experience has become much more than that.”

In the past five years, Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries have seen a shift in consumer behavior: Guests would rather have an experience at a winery or two per day rather than sip lineups of wines at five to eight properties. To capture that visitor’s attention takes more than great wine; it’s about creating a lasting experience that will hopefully build brand loyalty and lead to wine sales. With more than 1,000 wineries in the area, that’s a challenge that has them offering everything from unique culinary pairings to full-scale dance parties—and everything in between.

The Napa Valley Film Festival at Charles Krug Winery, Saint Helena, Calif. Marc Fiorito
Marc Fiorito

The perfect pair

As wine and food go hand in hand, wineries are enhancing their culinary offerings. From on-site restaurants to picnic areas, wineries are enticing guests to stay a bit longer for a bite. Others are incorporating food into every tasting. At the Spanish-owned Artesa Estate Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley, every flight of wine comes with pintxos, small snacks typically eaten at bars in Northern Spain. Spicy jumbo prawns complement the minerality of Artesia’s Albarino, and chorizo and potato pintxos stand up to the weight of the 2014 limited-edition Cabernet Sauvignon. The food helps make wines more approachable, especially when they are lesser known varieties or Napa’s tannin-heavy red wines.

At the nearby Culinary Institute of America’s Copia restaurant, wine pairing dinners are more than a glass with each dish. An interactive 3D-mapping technology projects sights and sounds as guests dine on each course, engaging all of a guest’s senses throughout the two-hour meal. It’s not a fun gimmick; it’s highly educational.

The Restaurant at CIA Copia Bob McClenahan
Bob McClenahan

Similarly, visitors to Hess Collection can try their hand at Napa Valley winemaking. During a seminar, guests can blend barrel samples to create their own custom wines, which they can later compare to the brand’s signature red blend, Lion Tamer. After, guests can explore the Mount Veeder vineyards via ATV or wander among owner Donald Hess’s personal collection of contemporary art housed on the property. In all cases, guests won’t go more than a few minutes without a sip of the Hess Collection estate wines.

Comedy cellar

Culinary components are part of the experiences offered at Charles Krug Winery, but so are a host of other events.The team converts the tasting room into a “comedy cafe” for monthly stand-up nights, which bring in local and well-known comedians. In the summertime, the Sunset Cinema series invites locals and tourists to watch film screenings on the manicured lawn. During both, a bar showcases Charles Krug wines, and wood-fired pizzas from its Cucina restaurant are on tap.

Soon, Morris and his team will launch SIP, the Series of Interesting People, with TED Talks–style lectures on topics from Hall of Fame baseball to survivor stories. He’s also working on a new live music concept. “In my opinion, the tasting bar is on its way out,” explains Morris. “People want to sit and be comfortable. They want to enjoy the outdoors, the vineyards, the property. The more they explore, the stronger the connection to the place.”

Comedy night at Charles Krug Winery in Saint Helena, Calif.
Charles Krug

That’s a sentiment shared by the team at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Calif., which has a restaurant and tasting bar as well as an performing arts pavilion, a movie theater, lawn games, and a swimming pool. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the director behind cult-worthy films including The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, the winery’s cinematic memorabilia is a draw. But so are the infamous pool parties, complete with bottles of its Sofia sparkling wine and cabanas befitting Saint-Tropez. Scoring a reservation here is like jockeying for one in Las Vegas, and the Coppola parties have possibly more thrills. Past parties have included a silent disco and a 1980s-themed arcade.

“There’s more competition for a visitor’s attention than ever before,” says Janiene Ullrich, executive vice president for the direct-to-consumer business at The Family Coppola estate. She notes that in addition to wineries, wine country also offers guests urban tasting rooms, breweries, and distilleries, which all spar for the consumer’s attention. “Experiences featuring food, music, swimming, and dancing create livelier backdrops to interact with a brand,” Ullrich says. “That gives the brand greater awareness by being connected to a fond memory.”

Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Francis Ford Coppola Winery

While cabanas and discos draw in crowds of twenty- and thirtysomethings, family-friendly activities are on the rise in wine country too. Ullrich notes the winery’s numerous children-focused activities, including the Petite Picasso art event and a Halloween carnival. At Inglenook in Napa, the kiddos can sail wooden boats in the property’s fountain as parents partake in a tasting, and Honig Vineyards invites children along on its property tour, which includes a stop by its beehives.

“These experiences create a tailored and less intimidating environment for someone to explore new wines,” Ullrich says. “It gives guests a reason to come back. Done right, the experience will drive the guest to spread the word about the wine brand.”

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