Millennials Looking Beyond Tasting Rooms in Search of the Experiential. Could this be Napa Valley’s tipping point?
By James Cash
There’s lots of discussion these days around Napa Valley and its ability to attract new (and younger) clientele. The basic business model and life blood of the Napa Valley wine industry revolves around the winery tasting rooms and the process of converting tasting room customers to mailing list customers that purchase the new releases annually. Manna from heaven – just keeps on coming.
A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle (10/16/2019) by David Ferry suggested that there are problems with both the tasting room experience and the wines themselves, and points to industry growth statistics to support the notion that the historical model is faltering. Wine Enthusiast went so far as forecasting the death of the traditional tasting room according to Ferry.
It’s no secret that tastes are changing, particularly among the younger generations, while new products that compete with quality wines, such as craft beers are making inroads. In the fine wine collector world, wineries face the challenge of appealing to the younger generations without alienating their existing customer base.
Those of us in the business of designing tasting rooms and private cellars are part of the problem but also can and should be part of the solution. The Chronicle article suggests that younger consumers are looking for “experiential” tasting room visits and that is not in large part what they are getting. Wine drinkers, when asked about the best wine they have ever had, often recall a restaurant experience and readily acknowledge that the food, service, ambiance and companionship all played a role. It left an impression that stayed with them because of the overall experience and they often purchase the same wine later and find it disappointing.
We can create experiential tasting rooms in a variety of ways – a dramatic first impressions, great personal service, daring to be different so as to stand out among the crowd, transporting customers to different places or different times, paying more attention to food that compliments the wines, making customers comfortable during their visit – using techniques such as lighting, music, soft seating instead of stand-up tasting “stations”, creating Instagram opportunities. And of course, the wines. A great example of a dramatic, destination tasting room can be found at Lokoya’s tasting room which is in a stone winery built during the 1970s on Napa’s Spring Mountain.
Shifting styles trend away from formal toward the casual, away from traditional towards more contemporary (or even edgy), away from heavy toward lighter, away from closed toward open, away from glitz toward authentic, away from artificial towards organic in materials and finishes, away from superficial toward functional.
Tasting room consultants and contractors need to help their winery clients navigate this challenging situation by finding creative ways to appeal to the new without alienating the old, to be purposeful, realistic and strategic in understanding the customers they seek, to be tactful but honest with clients. In our business we are told that one thing that sets us apart is that we listen, but we also need to bring strong content to the situation in terms of information and ideas. As with so many things in life, communication is key.