Downtown California Wine Country tasting rooms help rural vintners get noticed
A recent report on the health of the premium wine business raised eyebrows with survey results that suggest smaller-scale vintners that have been relying on tasting rooms and clubs to drive direct-to-consumer sales growth should rethink that strategy.
The number of visitors to given tasting rooms has decreased over the past five years in Napa and Sonoma counties and in Washington state, while traffic per venue is up in emerging premium wine regions such as Oregon, Virginia and New York, according to surveys conducted for Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report, the most recent one was released in January.
The report notes that tourism visitations is up in Wine Country, changing demographics toward fewer but longer winery stops per trip for older consumers and budget-minded ventures by younger consumers.
This also comes at a time when popular destination downtowns of Sonoma, Healdsburg and Napa have considered or taken action to limit new venues after a string of openings in the past decade.
With this backdrop, the Business Journal takes an inside look at why two rural North Coast wineries that have planted tasting rooms in a one of the region’s more popular tourism destinations and how that is faring.
Don Hartford and Jenny Hartford-Jackson started Hartford Family Winery near the western Sonoma County community of Forestville in 1994 and in 2015 opened a second tasting room, located on Healdsburg Avenue just north of Hotel Healdsburg and in the downtown plaza shopping district.
The main reason for the second location is the isolation of the Forestville and the winery site, located off Martinelli Road south of the popular Russian River Valley wine region, according to Becky Craig, estate manager.
“There are a few wineries around Forestville now, but there were not many for a long time,” she said.
Those who do visit the winery are “qualified traffic,” meaning they ventured there on the recommendation of a critic, friend, restaurant worker or existing member of the winery club.
“When they get to the door, they are excited to taste our wine,” Craig said. “In downtown Healdsburg, we have the opportunity to reach customer who have not head of us or are not willing to drive all the way out. You get hotel traffic, which is great because they are excited to be in the area but may not know where to go.”
As Craig found out working at other tasting rooms around the Healdsburg plaza, referrals from hotels are a key way to drive traffic to the venue. While delayed completion of construction of the Healdsburg Avenue roundabout made it challenging for visitors to get to the plaza and find parking over two years, the hub was reopened last year, in time for the arrival of new downtown hotels, Craig said. Among the local lodging guests happening into the Hartford venue on a Sunday afternoon in February was Joe Onorato. He was staying at Hotel Healdsburg next door.
“I came here after visiting a couple other wineries today,” he said.
Because of space limitations at the downtown site, Hartford’s tasting experience aims to give visitors a flavor of what they can find at the estate, Craig said. A wall-mounted flat-screen television in the salon shows looped video scenes from the Forestville property.