The last of the late spring snow was still melting in the gutters last winter as a group of thirty-somethings walked quickly toward the corner bar, pulling their coats around them to keep out the Chicago wind. They could see light from the candles inside Webster’s Wine Bar flickering through the windows and as they pulled the door open and rushed inside, their hunched shoulders relaxed and they smiled, happy to finally be at the sold-out wine-tasting class they had looked forward to all week.
At Webster’s, more than 30 spaces at monthly wine-tastings and introductory tasting classes fill up quickly. Customers at the Wine Workshop in Manhattan reserve all the spaces at their four tastings every week. Back in Chicago, the trendy Hudson Club sells out tickets for 125 spaces at informal wine-tastings in just a few days. National tasting tours and promotional events held by a number of wineries are also well attended.
“The wine industry has become the fastest-growing industry in years,” said Corrine Levenson, director of the Wine Workshop, who thinks that wine tastings are playing a role in the expansion. Now bar and restaurant owners nationwide are discovering that hosting wine and beverage tastings and classes can be both profitable and a great promotional tool.
But the payoffs aren’t always immediate or easy to quantify, and most vendors who offer them see tastings as long-term investments that help them promote wine. Plus, customers are more likely to patronize the restaurant where they took a class or attended a tasting, said director of communications for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Kimberly Charles.
While owners are reluctant to discuss how much money they make from tastings, there’s no reason for first-timers not to expect to break even, at least. (Levenson, for instance, says the Wine Workshop makes “a decent profit” from the tastings.) Before you proceed, however, make certain you are in compliance with state and local beverage alcohol laws regarding tastings.
What it Takes
Reaping the many benefits that can derive from hosting wine tastings and classes can be easy as long as you know the basics. A few tried and true formats are worth trying out to help develop a system of one’s one.
The easiest format for a tasting may be the informal event, where wines are made available at a table or the bar, and customers are invited to walk around, sample the wines and chat among themselves. Another option is to offer a guided tasting, led either by a staff member, or a representative from a winery or a distributor who can provide guests with a brief overview of each wine sampled. The leader should be able to answer questions from the attendees, who are likely to be fairly new to wine appreciation.
The most structured tasting format is probably an actual class. In a class setting, the leader might distribute informational material and a list of the wines and then give an in-depth explanation of each wine, including the area where the grapes are grown and the general history of the wine’s development.
But tastings needen’t be limited to wines; Windows on the World in NYC hosts a monthly informal classes on particular spirits and cocktails, led by Dale DeGroff, which sell out regularly.
No tasting, no matter how it is organized, will work without tasters, and getting customers to attend is where advertising comes in. Word-of-mouth may be the most valuable advertising tool. At Webster’s Wine bar, most of the people who sign up for the tastings and classes hear about them from friends or are already customers.
Levenson targets wine lovers by running ads in wine publications and reaches a wider market with ads placed in the New York Times. She tracks the success of the advertising by polling customers so she knows the ads are successful. Mailing and e-mail lists are also essential, so when customers pre-register for classes, make sure to get their contact information. Some use an email list to target advertising and cut mailing costs.
And don’t forget to send press releases to the local newspapers, especially those willing to list events for free in the food section calendar. Putting up signs within your business only makes sense, of course, and if the money is available, mdistributing flyers to local businesses can be an effective promotional tool as well.
What it Costs
A little legwork can save a lot of money and help make tastings profitable from the start. From negotiating deals with distributors to advertising and signing people up, most of the work of a tasting comes long before you pour the first glass.
An operation can reduce costs by arranging for tasting wines to be provided at discount, or even no cost, from distribtuors. Lisa Paul, marketing director of Chicago-based distributor Vin Divino, suggests that anyone new to hosting wine tastings speak first with their sales representative. Distributors sometimes will work with a winery directly to get sample bottles for a tasting, or negotiate a discount, as much as 50 percent.
At the Hudson Club, customers who attend tastings fill out scorecards and vote on their favorite wines. Then self-described “wine guy” Curt Burns takes his cue from their choices and buys that wine to place on the restaurant’s list, so distributors know they can expect increased sales from the tastings. Webster’s Wine Bar features wines from monthly tastings on the menu. When distributors know that operators are willing to use the results of their tastings to rebuild a wine list, they’re more likely to be willing to help out.
When a winery is trying to promote a new product, that’s a good time to bargain for a discount as well. And if the tasting event is designed to raise money for a charity, that’s almost always a way to get free product because the winery is able to write-off the costs as a tax deduction.
Once you’ve figured out how much the tasting will cost, decide on a price. It’s reasonable to charge about $30 per person for a limited tasting that features 10 to 15 wines. The cost of introductory tasting classes varies depending on the number of weeks they last. Webster’s Wine Bar offers a four-week introductory class for $100, the one-class Essentials of Wine at the Wine Workshop runs $45, and the Chicago Wine School charges $150 for a five-week introductory class. If that level of expertise is outside an operation’s ability, wine schools may be willing to partner with a restaurant for joint tasting classes or seminars, either on-premise or at another location.
Taste and See
Before you host a class, Janan Asfour, who co-owns Webster’s Wine Bar, suggests holding an informal tasting so you can iron out any problems allowing you to better prepared.
Once you’re ready to start teaching your customers about wine, the most important step is to make sure the leader is knowledgeable about wine in general and the region or grape varietal you’ve selected. If you or your staff members know enough, but have never lead a class, don’t try to bluff your way through. Patrick Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School, points out that even people who aren’t wine experts can tell when class leaders don’t know their stuff.
“I’ve been to dozens of events where the person didn’t know what they were talking about and tried to shovel it as best as they could,” he said. “It just turns people off.”
The most inexpensive solution is to bring in a distributor and have their staff pour the wines, usually something they’ll do for free. The other option is to hire a consultant to help plan and teach the class.
An introductory class should cover a broad range of wines with at least one wine from every major category. Once again, serve between 10 and 15 wines and don’t pour more than 1.5 ounces. Also, pick a region or grape varietal that’s popular.
Once you’ve gotten people interested and have a solid base of customers attending the tastings and classes, use those mailing lists to promote more obscure tastings.
Whether you’re hosting an informal tasting or a highly structured class, it’s essential to make people feel comfortable.
“People really don’t want to look dumb when they’re ordering or buying wine,” Asfour said. “There’s a big intimidation factor.” To combat that, Asfour, says they keep the classes and tastings casual and set them up in a space where people can walk around and be social.
“The most important thing is to keep it down to earth and casual so people feel comfortable.”
In addition to welcoming his guests with a glass of wine to help relax them, Fegan likes to use humor.
“Sometimes I ask things just to see if they’re listening,” Fegan said. “Instead of using fruity or woody as a descriptor, I’ll say it smells like newborn baby weasel paws.”
During a class at Webster’s Wine Bar, students talked quietly while co-owner Tom MacDonald discussed what foods go well with the Rhone they were tasting. MacDonald didn’t ask the group to be quiet, he just continued his explanation.
They might not have heard every word he said, but his laid-back teaching style was popular with the students. “The atmosphere was very relaxed but he also has a very comprehensive knowledge of the subject and was fun to listen to,” said Kim Land, of Lisle, IL. “He never got impatient or annoyed with us and I always felt comfortable.”
Lisle said before taking the class she never knew what she liked or what to buy. Now that she does, she’s drinking more wine. And we can all drink a toast to that.
A Simple Taste
To conduct a basic tasting, Patrick Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School, says all you need is enough clean glassware, bread and water. Hand out a list of the wines and if the wines come from a particular region or country, provide copies of maps or hang a poster.
You can also provide foods that compliment the featured wines. At the Hudson Club, Curt Burns serves hors d’ouevres and a variety of cheeses. Have spit buckets available and whatever you do, don’t over-pour.
“Know that people will drink all the wine you give them,” says Christine Blumer director of education and special events at Chicago-based wine retailer, Sam’s Wine and Spirits. “A 1.5-ounce pour is fine, more than that and they’ll get drunk.”
Also be sure to check the schedules of other bars and restaurants. You don’t want to compete with an established event when you’re just starting. Several wine-bar owners suggest limiting the size of the tastings at first to no more than 30 people and they also suggest having a sign-up or selling tickets as a way to limit turn-out.
Tastings work best when they have a theme, usually a grape varietal or a region. If you’re tasting focuses on an area, showcase that region’s range with 10 to 15 different wines. (Tasting fewer than 10 wines won’t likely include a wide enough range to give a valuable idea of why the important wines differ from lesser wines.)
“I usually try to use wines from as many different producers as possible,” Fegan said. “But I’ll also offer two wines from the same producer so people can compare them.”
Burns likes to showcase equal numbers of red and white wines while some tastings, such as the “Red Rhones of Southern France” at Webster’s Wine Bar, feature just reds or just whites.