COVID-19 to end free wine tastings in Australia?

Complimentary wine flights are a cornerstone of Australian cellar door visits – but as wineries reopen, they’re rethinking the tradition. For decades free wine tastings have been an essential part of the Australian cellar door experience. They helped turn a nation of beer drinkers on to the charms of Shiraz, Sémillon, and Sagrantino.

Free tastings were unpopular pre-COVID

Before the Covid-19 shutdown, the number of Australian wineries charging for tastings went from 29% in 2017-18 to 50% in 2019. As wineries have reopened post-shutdown, more are questioning the value of giving away their product free.

After closing for more than two months, and seeing the wholesale market disappear, the idea of pouring free wine in the hope of making a few sales became increasingly unpalatable. Wineries charging for tastings report that visitors are paying more attention to the wines and the stories behind them.

Having that cover charge puts more of a value on the experience so it’s been very positive in that respect.

Winemaker Andrew Thomas of Thomas Wines in the Hunter Valley

Customers pay more attention during paid tastings

Thousands of liters have been given away in recent years. With bedpans as spittoons and wines boasting names like Golden Mullet Fury, cellar doors attract a young crowd. As word got out that it was a great place to end a day trip in the region, the car park began to fill up with cars, minibusses, and even coaches disgorging tipsy revelers. The pleasant chaotic party vibe was distracting from the winery’s mission – encouraging consumers to embrace lesser-known “alternative” varietals that thrive in McLaren Vale.

COVID restrictions an excellent opportunity to change

When the cellar doors were forced to close earlier this year it provided the perfect opportunity to create a more structured experience for all visitors. With many, now tastings must be booked in advance, and hosts offer a more personalized and unique experience.

In wine regions internationally, like those across France and the US, tasting room fees are already commonplace.

Result in higher spend per person

The prospect of backlash or a loss in visitation may put some wineries off. Results however show a universally positive response from customers. People who are unwilling to pay $10 or $20 for a tasting are unlikely to be a top customer anyway. Ultimately paid tastings may reduce the number of visitors slightly, and definitely yields a higher spend per person, combined with a more enjoyable experience.

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