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Washington Warms to Supermarket Tastings

Successful pilot program for in-store wine tastings may become permanent fixture

by Peter Mitham
Washington supermarket wine tasting
Safeway's Cherie Myers said the pilot tasting program worked well, and hopes it will become a permanent feature.

Olympia, Wash.  -- Washington state’s year-long pilot of wine and beer tastings in grocery stores helped enhance shoppers’ store visits without producing a discernible increase in public safety violations.

Washington State Liquor Control Board staff on Nov. 30 presented a report regarding the pilot tasting program to committees of the state legislature. The report was delivered to the state legislature Dec. 4, setting the stage for the January 2010 introduction of a bill that could see in-store tastings become a regular part of supermarket promotions.

Approximately 200 tastings were scheduled under the program, which began Oct. 1, 2008, and ended Sept. 30, 2009. (See “Washington Tests Supermarket Tastings,” Wines & Vines, Oct. 6, 2008.) Regulations for the pilot program required participating stores to have a fully enclosed retail area of at least 9,000 square feet, primarily selling groceries. Up to 2 ounces each of four different wines could be poured, as long as the total pouring amounted to no more than 4 ounces per visitor. (California, by contrast, allows three 1-ounce samples per visitor.)

Servers were required to receive training similar to those working in winery tasting rooms, and a food offering to complement the wine or beer was required. Retailers could charge for the tastings, but wineries, importers or distributors could not subsidize the tasting.

Public concerns about the supermarket sipping originally focused on public consumption and risks to youths both from inattentive parents and access to beer and wine themselves. However, a dearth of public safety issues arose during the year of pilot tastings, encouraging positive perceptions of the program.

WSLCB enforcement officers identified just three infractions of state liquor laws at pilot sites, all related to regulations governing serving alcohol to minors. Pat Kohler, administrative director with the WSLCB, noted in the report that overall compliance with state liquor regulations was “slightly better than the retail grocery average.”

Positive feedback highlighted appreciation for the tastings, “enjoyment of the sampling process,” the “enhanced shopping experience” to which tastings contributed, and noted that consumers desired expansion of in-store tastings.

Cherié Myers, director of public and government relations with Safeway Inc., told Wines & Vines that the national grocery chain was “very pleased” with the pilot program. Seven Safeway stores across the state participated in the pilot program, accounting for a quarter of all participating locations.

“We were very pleased with the results,” Myers said. “The main benefit was introducing consumers to wines that maybe they would like to try and then purchase. It was good for the consumers -- they enjoyed it. (It was) another added pleasure to being in the store.”

Safeway has wine stewards available in its stores to assist customers, but the grocer hired a separate company to handle the tastings. Wines to be poured were profiled in the store’s weekly flyers, while a representative of the featured winery was on hand to talk with consumers. The tastings also turned consumers’ attention to other wines, Myers said, helping support overall sales during what was a difficult time for many retailers.

“In a time when the economy was less than desirable, we were very pleased with the results,” she said. “It was a program that, during the time that we all experienced this last year, could have been doomed....However, I’m pleased to say that we were very happy with this program.”

Myers said she anticipates a permanent in-store tasting program. Strict guidelines will be presented to legislators in January and are expected to receive approval early in the new year.

Not everyone was happy with the pilot program, however. Two of the original 30 stores approved to participate in the pilot program ultimately did not host any tastings. One of those was Denny’s Harvest Foods in Medical Lake, in Eastern Washington.

Owner Denny McDaniel told Wines & Vines last year that the requirement for retailers to cover costs associated with the tastings --  including staffing and product costs -- would eliminate any profits he hoped to see from increased sales. Indeed, the WSLCB report said many retailers didn’t notice a significant increase in wine sales.

“It’s a good idea, but they went about it the wrong way,” store manager Zane McDaniel said, confirming that Denny’s never hosted tastings under the pilot program.

Still, the enthusiasm of Safeway and another retailer -- who claimed wine sales jumped 20% as a result of the program, according to the report -- are pointing to in-store wine tastings becoming a permanent feature of Washington state supermarket promotions.


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