Vintners are doing a better job at turning tasting-room visitors into club members, an important conversion that translates intermittent dollars into a more steady revenue flow, according to a forthcoming report.

The average conversion rate of tasters to members last year was 6 percent nationwide, up from 4 percent in 2014. Silicon Valley Bank divided its inhouse figures for the total number of 2015 tasting-room visitors to vintners in business for more than five years by the numbers of new club members.

Converters last year were Napa County at 11 percent, Sonoma County at 10 percent, Livermore and Delta area at 9 percent, and New York at 7 percent. Sonoma’s rate increased from 5.5 percent in 2014, and Napa’s from 6.6 percent. Mendocino County and its Anderson Valley high-end pinot noir appellation tied with the 5 percent conversion rates of the middle of California’s Central Coast and Sierra Foothills.

“We’re seeing a great upward trend of conversion tools being used in the tasting room to convert to wine club,” said Sandra Hess, founder of DTC Wine Workshops, during a May 10 webcast on results from a tasting-room survey conducted by Silicon Valley Bank and Wine Business Monthly.

A report on the survey will be published in the July issue of that publication.

Behind the higher conversion rates are solutions vintners are deploying to manage busy periods at tasting rooms, maximize use of space and provide more meaningful first-time experiences, Hess said. For example, use of mobile point-of-sale, or POS, devices to process transactions and record consumer information is expanding nationwide beyond Napa Valley. And for times when long lines form outside Texas High Country tasting rooms on hot days, the vintners serve those waiting in line to get in water and lemonade.

But best practices for tasting-venue staff should go back to “basic manners,” she said. Greet and introduce themselves to visitors when they arrive, have meaningful conversations and thank visitors before they leave.

The higher club-conversion rates are a sign of a healthy industry and a societal shift in the past three decades, said Carol Reber, chief marketing and business development officer for Duckhorn Wine Company, during the webcast. She recounted how country club membership wasn’t out of reach for families in the Midwest when she was growing up, and the clubs were the default social hub. Correctly crafted wine clubs can help vintners connect with guests and their lifestyles.

“These wine clubs are really the country clubs of today,” Reber said. “They’re within reach. They’re affordable luxuries, and people can come and gather with similar, like-minded individuals.”

More club converts suggests wineries are connecting with guests, what’s at the tasting venue is more corrected and priced more correctly.

“Wine country in general is off the hook on this and doing a great job,” she said.

More visitors become members via private settings than at the tasting bar, the survey found. The conversion rate for private tasting settings was 17 percent last year, compared with 4 percent at public venues. And tastings served to those seated in private or formal settings led to a 19 percent conversion rate, compared with 7 percent conversion for seated casual or group tasting, 5 percent for those standing at a bar and 4 percent for visitors sitting at the bar.

And wine club membership growth is accelerating, the survey found. Average club membership grew 16 percent last year, up from 14 percent in 2014. Leading the growth is Livermore with 25 percent, “other U.S.” 21 percent, “other international” and Anderson Valley–Mendocino 19 percent. Sonoma County ranked No. 6 with 17 percent growth, up from 13 percent in 2014. Napa County tied at 14 percent with Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and Washington state.


A number of distributors think direct-to-consumer sales cut into their revenues, according to Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank and founder of its St. Helena-based Wine Division. He recalled that a large majority of distributor representatives at a meeting he spoke at raised their hands when asked whether a bottle sold in a tasting room meant a bottle fewer for them to sell.

“It’s really part of a greater marketing program,” McMillan said vintners should explain to their wholesalers. “Trial ends up being the most important thing to that second sale. The second sale is where you make all the money.”

Distributors are starting to pick up on that message, he said.

Direct-to-consumer efforts should reinforce the wholesale channel, according to Reber.

“And if we do DTC right, we are creating evangelists,” Reber said. “Those evangelists see us as one entity, whether they’re seeing our wines in a restaurant, or a fine wine shop or at our winery, we’re all one. If we do good job creating evangelists in tasting rooms, those evangelists will go out and command a higher share of everyone’s wine wallets.”

The large “wine wall” at larger retailers can be overwhelming for consumers, but the tasting-room experience makes that decision easier, she said.

Some of a winery’s key evangelists should be neighbors to the facility itself, and that may help with the increasingly challenging regulatory environment for visitor-serving operations in the North Coast, McMillan said.

“If you really want your neighbors to be evangelists, make them feel welcome at your winery, make them feel part of it,” he said.