Tourists keep coming to Sonoma County wineries even as tasting fees increase

Winery tourism remained relatively strong in Sonoma County over the summer as visitors continued to come out to sip on lush pinot noir and swirl bright chardonnay as the pandemic waned and fall arrived.

The crowds have returned at most spots ― though not at a pre-pandemic level, according to industry data and interviews with local vintners.

A survey of 58 tasting rooms across Sonoma County found that visitation levels in August were up almost 12% from the same period in 2021 and corresponding tasting room sales were up 12%, according to the marketing firm Community Benchmark.

The slower rebound is not a surprise.

Tourism officials said it would take a few years before surpassing 2019 levels as tourists fully come back, especially international visitors. Hotel occupancy levels in Sonoma County over the summer were close to 2021 levels, while total passenger numbers out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport through the first eight months of this year are up almost 71% over 2021.

Another factor: More wineries have implemented tastings on an appointment-only basis with a tight labor supply in the North Bay. That move has discouraged additional walk-in visitors and larger crowds to focus on a more personal experience that can garner sign-ups for wine club memberships.

Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg is an example of this new normal.

The winery, known for its wide range of local varietals and increasingly popular red and white blends under its new Upshot label, has had a 20% increase in visitors this year compared to 2021, said Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications.

The level is still down 18% from 2019 even though the winery does accept walk-ins if room is available.

“We do anticipate a slow climb back from the pandemic. And that is what we are seeing,” O’Gorman said of visitors. They were welcomed by a $1 million renovation of its tasting lounge completed during the earlier part of the pandemic.

The winery did sell out all three of its summer concerts that “were wildly popular,” along with hosting smaller events “that were more hit and miss” given staffing challenges, he added.

“There was a lot to do in Sonoma County. There were a lot of things to choose from,” said O’Gorman, a Healdsburg native who especially noted the uptick of weddings hosted locally this summer. “You had to market and execute the events well. That was really an important part of it.”

That sentiment was shared elsewhere across Sonoma County.

Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen and its sister Imagery Estate Wineryhave seen an increase in visitors at an average of 40% between both locations, said Brian Reeves, vice president of direct-to-consumer sales.

Benziger has traditionally been a popular spot with its tram tours across its estate that highlight its biodynamic farming practices, in which the land’s ecosystem is balanced through such acts as administering specialized compost and nutrients as opposed to harsh chemicals.

“We didn’t really implement our tours back up in a big way until late last year. Also, we couldn’t find staff,” Reeves said.

Benziger still accepts walk-in visitors because it wants to continue to be accessible to all types of customers beyond well-heeled visitors, he said. “That’s been a big reason why we’re seeing more people here,” he said.

Conversely, the visitor counts at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol have remained mostly stable, though that is because the family-owned winery implemented an appointment-only visitor system in 2019 before the pandemic, said Joy Sterling, chief executive officer.

“We are not experiencing a drop,” Sterling said.

Her goal is to offer special releases throughout the year to keep new visitors and wine club members coming back to the estate perched up in the bucolic hills of the Green Valley.

Nationally, there was a small dip from May through August in winery tasting rooms that were surveyed by Wine Direct, which operates sales software for wineries.

Tasting room orders were down 6% and there was a corresponding 3% drop in the money spent per visit compared to the same period in 2021, said Andrea Smalling, chief marketing officer for Wine Direct. But such movement doesn’t signify a “ghost town” description that was mentioned in a recent regional publication, Smalling added.

“Clearly, there were enough people who were willing to go to Wine Country and spend money,” she said.

In fact, the focus of post-pandemic visitation has turned the spotlight more on the rising costs for such visits given the financial pressures that wineries face across the board, which range from supply-chain disruptions to higher labor costs.

That has translated to higher tasting room fees. One recent survey found that tasting fees in Sonoma County increased from the per-person average of $25.75 before the pandemic to $37.

In Napa County, the increase has been starker. The tasting fees for a regular visit jumped from $20 per person in 2016 to $40.62 last year. Meanwhile, a more premium experience in the Napa Valley increased during that same time period from $30 per person to $82.26, according to Cellarpass, a software firm that tracks such data.

Tasting fees have crossed the $100 per-person barrier at some of those wineries and are here to stay, said Sarah Elliman, co-founder of Cellarpass.

There have been some notable examples highlighted in various media outlets, such as the newly reopened tasting room at Heitz Cellar in St. Helena, where the entry level starts at $125 per person and the premium experience is at $1,000 per person. The debate reverberated especially when Lettie Teague, the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece on March 22 with the headline: “Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist.”

The perception that Napa Valley is increasingly a place for the very affluent has gained traction, especially with new hotels that have opened, such as the Four Seasons in Calistoga where the room rate for midweek in October starts at $2,000 per night.

Visit Napa Valley, the trade organization responsible for tourism marketing in the area, has noticed and is trying to combat the narrative. It has posted a blog item where visitors can go to 50 wine tastings under $50 per person.

“I think it’s important to understand that, yes, we got some shiny new toys … but if you are willing to do some discovery and explore, there are plenty of tasting options that are not at those prices you are reading about,” said Linsey Gallagher, president and chief executive officer of Visit Napa Valley.

Tasting fees, especially in Napa Valley, are likely to keep up such pace given it also has the highest bottle price in the country.

“I don’t think it goes down,” said Rob McMillan, founder of the wine division at Silicon Valley Bank. “It’s a question of value. Napa sells luxury wines.”

But that pricing dynamic should open opportunities for other regions such as Sonoma County and especially Lake and Mendocino counties for more budget-conscious consumers, vintners said.

The cheapest level at Benziger is $25 per person at its wine bar, while over at Rodney Strong and Iron Horse the entry-level tastings are $30 per person. Sterling said that Iron Horse’s fees, which can be waived with bottle purchases of six or more, are fairly reasonable in this environment.

“How can I judge someone else’s business model?” Sterling said while noting $500 per person “is just too much.”

The trend may end up benefiting both Napa and nearby regions, said Judd Wallenbrock. He has a unique perspective because he left earlier this year as president and CEO at C. Mondavi & Family, the family-owned wine company that operates Charles Krug, Napa Valley’s oldest winery. He now serves as CEO for Boatique Wines, in the Red Hills region of Lake County.

Wallenbrock said he found the city of Napa especially busy this summer and noted that it took him more than 15 minutes to find a parking space one recent weekend night.

“Has Napa premiumized? Without a doubt. But it is working for them,” he said.

But that will open up opportunities for other areas such as in rural Lake County at Boatique, which is on a mountain in Kelseyville and features well-regarded cabernet sauvignon amid a collection of unique wooden boats in its hospitality area.

“The door is opening up for us,” Wallenbrock said.

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