May 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Maximize the Value of Tours

Exceptional experiences increase wine purchases and club memberships

by Craig Root
Kunde Hike
Hikers at Kunde Family Estate climb from the valley floor up to 1,400 feet elevation.

There are two facets of tasting room operations in which top management can easily hurt profits. It’s critical to look closely at these and other possible pitfalls.

The first is understaffing, and I will address that topic in a future article. The second way managers hurt their profits is not giving tours when they are entirely viable (unlike a storefront tasting room). I have given between 5,000 and 7,000 tours during my 30 years in the business, and I am convinced that visitors who go on tours buy more wine and join clubs at a higher rate.

Plus, as I have mentioned in previous articles, you are not just selling wine, you are also selling memories. I went on the Tillamook cheese tour when I was a teenager, and I still remember the brand along with the huge vats of cheese. This is a critical point: We have something people want to see. We have tours, Jelly Belly Candy Co. has tours, Budweiser and Tabasco Hot Sauce have tours. Your average manufacturer doesn’t have tours because no one wants to watch widgets being made. So the customer is saying: We are willing to spend our precious weekend or vacation time listening to your story (your infomercial if you will). As a winery that doesn’t offer tours, you are saying: We don’t care.

Let’s consider the many different forms of tours. First, the standard tour is usually about 30 minutes long and covers how you grow your grapes and then turn them into a bottle of wine. You are also talking up your story: why you are special (thus the infomercial).


  • The author, a veteran tasting room manager and consultant, explains the do's and don'ts of winery tours.
  • He says that customers willing to listen to your story are a great asset, and you should take care of them.
  • Four types of tours—from mini-tours to off-road vehicle tours—are explained.

The second type is the mini-tour. I invented this style when I was the manager at Trefethen in the ’90s, and the staff and I increased sales by 70%. The mini-tour consists of a 12-15 minute condensed version of the half-hour tour. At that time, Trefethen had a very tiny tasting room. Ostensibly, visitors thought I was taking them on a tour, and I was. But in reality, I was reducing overcrowding (which can hurt sales) by taking half of the crowd out of the room. This relief gave the staff time to close their sales and get caught up before I brought the tour back to them.

The third type would be the in-depth two-hour tour and tasting (usually by appointment, costs $25-$50 or higher, and is for the customer who really wants to know a lot more about winemaking and your wines). These tours should be conducted by senior staff with major knowledge about viticulture and enology as well as your winery’s history and wines. It may also include a tasting of library wines. Remember that “you sell what you taste,” and library wines—if you have enough—can really boost your total sales for the day since they cost more than current releases.

The fourth tour is the off-road tour, where the guests are transported in an off-road vehicle to a remote or difficult-to-access part of your property. I recently did a project for Newton Vineyards in which they instituted a great off-road experience (in addition to their regular tour). Visitors pay $85 to board a Pinzgauer off-road military vehicle that has six wheels and can hold up to 12 passengers. Guests are driven on a 15-minute ride up the mountain to a deck with a breathtaking view of the Napa Valley. The tour guide conducts a 20-minute stand-up tasting and photo opportunity. Guests are then transported back to the tasting room for a short, sit-down tasting. As part of my work for Newton, I went on the tour anonymously. When guests were leaving, I explained what I was doing and then polled them about the quality of the experience. The satisfaction rate was extremely high, and I noticed that sales and club sign-ups after the sit-down tasting were very brisk.

Another important tour is the trade tour. I covered this type in “Profiting From Trade Visitors” in the May 2013 issue of Wines & Vines.

Do’s and don’ts for giving tours
If you’re doing off-road tours, be sure to have in-depth training for the tour guides. As part of the Newton project, I did comparables of other off-road tours. In some cases (Chappellet and Newton), the training was rigorous. In others, it was negligent: “They let me drive the off-road vehicle by myself for a couple of hours, and I was good to go.” This lack of preparation leads to accidents, which have occurred.

Try and keep your tour sequential whenever possible: You go from the vineyard to the crush pad to fermentation to barrel aging to bottling. One note: If your vineyards are too far away from your tasting room, you can always plant a couple of vines close by. We in the business are desensitized, but for the average visitor to see something like a véraison is a real treat. By the way, these types of areas with three or four vines close to the tasting room have a great industry nickname: petting vineyard.

Use analogies in your tour. For example: “The grape is the most important component in making great wines. It’s just like cooking: If you have a great piece of salmon, you don’t need to do a lot to it for it to be tasty.” Analogies improve comprehension and help the group to bond with the tour guide (which leads to higher sales and club sign-ups).

Always mention the wine club just before returning to the tasting room: “By the way, folks, we have a really fun wine club. You get great discounts and invitations to wonderful parties as well as a free tasting. If you’re interested, let’s talk about it when we get back to the tasting room.”

Never let people in your tour group wander off. Pretend that you’re taking a group of 4-year-olds around. Would you turn your back on those rascals? Not for a second. If you started off with 18 people, make sure you return with that number.

Try to keep your tour size to 25 people or less, when possible. If you have a bus group of 50, divide them in half. One half goes on tour while the other half tastes, then vice-versa.

Always keep the safety of your group paramount. For example, at Beaulieu Vineyard, I gave thousands of tours as both a staff member and a manager. Most of the year, we were free to go right up to the crusher-destemmer, but during crush there were lines painted on the tarmac that we weren’t allowed to cross with our group.

There is one more significant benefit to tours: Working behind the tasting counter all day can be draining, which hurts sales. Giving a tour can be a refreshing change of pace for staff members. They come back to the counter with a little more wind in their sails, so giving tours can improve morale as well as profits.

Craig Root has 30 years experience working with tasting rooms, the past 17 years as a consultant. He has helped create more than 85 tasting rooms and 150 wine clubs all over the United States. He analyzes current operations and teaches tasting room design and management at the University of California, Davis. He still works one day per month in a busy tasting room in order to stay in touch with the public and the work.

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