Why Napa Wine Tasting Fees Are More Than Twice As Much As 6 Years Ago

The average cost of a basic wine tasting in the Valley hit $40.62 last year, up from $20 in 2016, according to booking platform CellarPass. Meanwhile, an “elevated” tasting — the kind of experience that could include wine pairing or reserve wines — cost $82.26 per person, a jump from $30 in 2016.

Soaring inflation, coupled with longer-term issues like labor shortages, wildfires and supply chain disruptions, has sent the cost of doing business skyrocketing in the industry Napa Winery, and some wineries are beginning to pass these costs on to their customers.

But rising prices aren’t yet deterring customers from visiting — and spending the money — America’s most famous wine region. “We are experiencing higher demand than ever,” said Hugh Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga. “The reality is that people drink wine.”

Yet winemakers say that even if they raise their prices, they pocket less money. “Inflation impacts wine producers, but they don’t pass on the full impact of price increases to consumers,” said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon’s Wine Division. Valley Bank. “They make lower margins.”

The increase in the consumer price index is not the only factor influencing wine prices. Many of the strongest determinants predate 2022. A labor shortage means employers pay higher wages. Supply chain blockages have driven up costs for goods like glass bottles, the price of which has doubled in some cases. Serial wildfires have driven up insurance rates — Schramsberg’s annual premium has jumped from $200,000 to more than $800,000, Davies said — and their threat requires constant maintenance of defensible space, another expensive item.

Now inflation is adding to all these problems.

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Hudson Ranch Vineyards owners Cristina and Lee Hudson walk down the path to their tasting room.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2021

“As a businessman, you never want to to raise prices,” said Lee Hudson, owner of Napa’s Hudson Vineyards, where a wine tasting is now $95, up from $65 a year ago. But that price hike, and the fact that sales are higher than they’ve ever been, still can’t keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of doing business, he said. “We make less money.”

“The overhead is crushing us,” said Maria Helm Sinskey, co-owner of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, which operates a popular tasting room along the Silverado Trail. The winery recently increased its main tasting option, which includes seven wine pours, from $50 to $65.

Agriculture is one of the fastest growing expenses at Robert Sinskey Vineyards, which owns all of its vineyard land. This makes it particularly sensitive to changes in the job market, fuel prices and the cost of vehicles like tractors and trucks. On top of that, the company farms organically, which usually requires more expensive crop treatments.

A survey by The Chronicle’s Top Wineries in Napa Valley guide reveals that modest increases in tasting fees were common over the past year. Lola Wines in Calistoga charges $35 now, down from $25 in spring 2021. Saintsbury in Carneros has gone from $35 to $40. Hendry Ranch, at the base of Mount Veeder, went from $40 to $50.

Robert Sinskey and Maria Helm Sinskey in their <a class=tasting room in Napa. They recently increased the price of their base tasting from $50 to $65.”/>

Robert Sinskey and Maria Helm Sinskey in their tasting room in Napa. They recently increased the price of their base tasting from $50 to $65.

Sarahbeth Maney / Special for The Chronicle 2021

At a few outlier wineries, the fees have soared even higher. Hudson’s $65 to $95 bump is an example. Another is the Antica Napa Valley mountain estate, whose tasting has gone from $45 to $75. (Antica did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

If $75 seems like a lot for a wine tasting, it’s still less than the CellarPass average of $82.26 for a top-flight wine experience. And so far, customers seem more than willing to shell out.

At the highest level, Napa’s most luxurious wineries can now command $500 or more per person. The proliferation of these more expensive tastings is not just a reflection of rising costs; it is also an indication of the changing nature of the tasting itself. The once mundane wine country setting of a casual, walk-in tasting bar is on its way out, replaced by one-on-one sessions with table service, cheese platters and personalized menus. The swankier ones offer flashy features like caviar, cooking classes, and even rides in vintage airplanes.

This change began before the pandemic. “In 2019, nearly all tasting rooms were offering what are considered ‘elevated’ experiences lasting at least 90 minutes and often including a food element of some sort,” said Sarah Elliman, co-founder of CellarPass.

Adonis Brown, second from left, and Shante Stephens of San Jose taste wine at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa.

Adonis Brown, second from left, and Shante Stephens of San Jose taste wine at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa.

Sarahbeth Maney / Special for The Chronicle 2021

As wineries began to reopen to visitors after the initial pandemic shutdown, more estates moved to an appointment-only model in order to control the number of customers they saw (and also, in some cases , to enable contact tracing). However, as pandemic restrictions eased, the reservation requirement was not met. Now, virtually all Napa wineries require advance reservations.

“2021 has shown that wine tasting reservations along with triple-digit tasting fees are here to stay,” Elliman said. “There are no signs of this trend slowing down.”

At Robert Sinskey Vineyards, making the reservations-only policy permanent was partly the result of the inability to hire enough employees. “We’ve really tried to limit the number of people who come due to staffing issues,” said Maria Helm Sinskey.

Other wineries have seen that by limiting appointments and charging higher fees, they could filter out the occasional partier who just wants to bring back a few drinks. Higher tasting fees are self-selecting for customers likely to buy more bottles of wine at the end of their session – which is, after all, the primary goal of any winery.

Hugh Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyards, said his costs were rising rapidly.

Hugh Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyards, said his costs were rising rapidly.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle 2021

“We don’t see hundreds of people — we only see 45 to 50 people a week,” Hudson said. “The tasting fee is the price of admission. We have to make sure that serious people come to visit us. He said Hudson justifies his fees by hiring talented tasting room hosts, which he tries to pay “at the top of the market.”

As tasting fees increase, so do wine bottle prices. Seventy-two percent of wineries selling bottles costing more than $25 said they would raise prices this year, according to data from Silicon Valley Bank. “But the price increase was expected to be small,” McMillan said, “and certainly less than the 9% inflation figure that was just announced.”

As inflation continues, it won’t be Napa’s high-end estates like Hudson, Schramsberg and Robert Sinskey that will be hardest hit, McMillan said, but rather producers of inexpensive, mainstream wines.

The prices of some Schramsberg wines are increasing in small increments.

The prices of some Schramsberg wines are increasing in small increments.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle 2021

“Prices in the sub-$11 grocery segment aren’t going up,” McMillan said. Unlike Napa’s smaller producers, he said, the high-volume wineries “don’t keep up with inflation.”

Schramsberg’s plans for its bottle prices follow this logic. The winery will increase its top wine, the J. Schram, from $130 to $140 a bottle when the next vintage is released, Davies said. But his Blanc de Blancs cuvée, which currently costs $42, will only go up $1.

He said he hopes to resist further increases for as long as he can, but given how quickly his costs are rising, “I’m scratching my head and wondering if we shouldn’t be more aggressive. “.

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail:
[email protected]
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley

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