The Tasting Room as an Experience – My Virginia Perspective

I just finished reading an interesting article in Decanter talking about the evolution of the tasting room in the past five-ten-fifteen years (note the article says PREMIUM, but I think we get freebees before they hide them all from us to make us pay – I hope you can read it).

…recalling the days when a California winery tasting room was an upturned barrel with open bottles sitting on it, and sips, poured by the winemaker, were free.

Then came the era of crowded tasting bars with plastic spit buckets that no one used. To refresh your memory, just watch the 2004 wine-buddy film Sideways.

In the past five years, the tasting room has morphed yet again, this time into elegant living rooms and slickly designed lounges with cosy seating, food pairing menus, sit-down guided tastings, idyllic vineyard views and the promise of an ‘experience’. Naturally the price to participate has gone way, way up.

The article specifically cites a favorite California wine of mine (prisoner) that was purchased by a mega-brand conglomerate that decided to open a “Makery” so that people can have experiences with their wine tasting. People can choose from jewelry, pasta, clay, and other arts classes as part of the experience, which actually sounds really cool.

The emphasis is on how Napa and California is distinguishing the tasting room experience from just sipping wine (how many wineries are we talking about there? Thousands?) to engaging in something new and exciting. Some wineries are going for (and charging for) luxury experiences, and others are tapping hands on and creative experiences.

One reader recently shared that he would be going to Napa for a wine tour for his 50th birthday. That sounds like an awesome plan. But there is a lot to do here too, and a Virginia winery tour for your 50th sounds amazing.

I feel like in my 13 years exploring wine I’ve seen the experience here in Virginia make some slight shifts like the article mentions in Napa too – with the experience becoming more interesting and more fun. I wrote previously about what I enjoy in a tasting room experience, and I think Virginia is currently creating some very exciting experiences that are again, uniquely Virginia and share some of what makes us special and different.

There are several wineries now offering Paint n Sip classes with organizations like Paint Nite, where you drink your wine while taking a painting class. I’ve watched one and they look like tremendous fun, and I owe Wine Friend 1 this as a birthday present (before her hiatus from wine visits with me, and now she’s travelling!). Another arts-focused experience is at Arterra, where in better weather you can walk the vineyards and woods for inspiration and select leaves, and work with clay while co-owner Sandy teaches you some of her clay style and you also get to sip wine. This connects the Virginia experience with the wine in a fun way. I’m hoping to do one of these sessions this Spring so you can read all about the experience.

The gorgeous bowl my sister bought me for my birthday from the art on display at Arterra.

Both Arterra and Greenhill have offered weekend yoga and wine experiences. You can do early morning yoga and finish with some great wine afterwards. Personally, I’m partial to Sparkling wine earlier in the day, so Greenhill’s blanc de blancs would be pretty outstanding after yoga. One afternoon at Arterra I had a great conversation with another patron about her time hiking in the blue ridge mountain while exploring various wineries (that would make a great theme for a blog too – recap your hikes and new wine finds). Virginia offers that connection with nature and our wineries and connecting exercise and meditation with the wine experience.

I have no doubt that Napa has mega-luxury experiences with some of their highest-end wineries. Virginia is offering a few of these. When you visit Greenhill you can see they’re going for an upscale experience with the decor, and with the seated tastings. The tasting price isn’t premium, but the wines are offered on the higher end of price points. RdV on the other hand, with a requirement for reservations and payment up front for the almost one-and-a-half hour tour and tasting experience, is offering a premium, high-end experience. Everything about this from the decor, to being greeted with a glass of bubbly, to the slick materials you receive as part of your visit, speaks to the idea that this is exclusive. A great deal of thought went into the overall feel of the tour, and at the end you get the seated tasting with four wines and the charcuterie platter. It’s quite impressive. The wines are stunning, though he tends to make bigger bolder wines (and I’ve written that RdV, to me, feels less like Virginia wine and more like it’s try to be better at being Napa – big and bold and stunning).


Finally, we have Virginia wineries that have history and stories to them. Winery at La Grange’s tasting room in an old plantation building that is said to be haunted. It’s so close to civil war battlefields that it’s easy to believe. There is tons of history in and around the winery and it’s beautiful setting.

At Greenhill, the member clubhouse is historic, the original building on the property – the outside is gorgeous and has wonderful pond and mountain views, and the inside is beautifully restored and updated. It’s a gorgeous place to spend the afternoon and connect with the countryside. The fact that people come through on horseback in good weather, just adds to the historic mystique that makes you feel you are in old Virginia.

I haven’t explored Slater Run as fully as I would like, but will swing by the winery itself when it reopens this Spring. In their tasting room in historic Upperville, you get a sense of the history they work to represent. The property itself has been in the family for generations as a working farm and horse farm, and the recent generation has decided to grow wine grapes. They tie their wines and wine labels to history. The wine is specifically in a French style, but the names and labels have their roots in local history with “First Bridge” and “Pit Jumper” with the picture of an ancestor on horseback. Magnolia does something similar with their wines and ties to local history with Hawkins Run Red and labels that tie to the battlefields their are built upon.

Virginia is offering its own spin on the tasting room and winery experience, and it’s a great one. It’s so easy to put together your own tour and get a taste of the state and its history, and find an experience that excites and engages you. From the article:

For wineries, the purpose of tasting rooms is focused on the bottom line. The business model for new brands depends on direct-to-consumer sales, where profits are highest and on winning drinkers’ loyalty… They’re sophisticated profit centres that reinforce the image a winery wants to convey…

It’s true that spots like the Prisoner’s Makery may seem more like entertainment and shopping complexes. But most of the new tasting rooms are fostering an attitude towards wine that most of us applaud: the idea that tasting wine isn’t just about what’s in the glass, but that it can also be part of conversation, culture and life.


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