For the last two weekends The Northern Sonoma County Wine Road association held their 34th annual barrel tasting event. Following things on Twitter it was clear that many people were having a great time tasting wines from barrels both weekends. The majority of people attending this sort of wine festival have a responsible good time. But
There’s Always A But
The local Press Democrat ran this story a couple days ago with the headline “Barrel Tasting Drunkenness Alarms Healdsburg Merchants” where “ merchants said they witnessed participants stagger from one tasting room to another, hanging on benches and even getting sick from too much alcohol.” Observers quoted in the story focused on “younger imbibers” but I think this is a bit unfair. While I would say that the partying crowd does seem to skew younger in terms of sheer numbers, in my experience “the over-served” come from every age group.
Oh, The Stories I Could Tell
I’ve been doing this a long time, serving wine to guests. If I have not seen it all, I’ve certainly seen a lot—more than the average wine lover. I’m the last person entitled to go all judgey and finger-pointy over people getting their drink on. I’ve done my fair share. And I have enabled a fair share in others.
But there’s something about the behavior of hammered guests at wine festivals that goes beyond the pale. Maybe it’s the public nature of the spectacle that is so objectionable.
Not The Image You Want Identified With Your Brand
I’ve said elsewhere and will repeat here: I no longer participate in any of the big wine festivals. The last event we did at Ft. Mason in SF was billed to us by the organizers as “a farmer’s market for wine” where we would be able to engage with and sell to motivated consumers. Then they sold tickets through Groupon, whose cutesy-snarky copywriters promoted the sale as “All You Can Drink – Half Price!” Awesome. The line to get into the venue was 8-wide and a quarter-mile long. We poured WAY more than we sold, the vast majority of it to people who forgot our brand before they got to the next table.
These Aren’t The Customers You’re Looking For
Over the years that I did participate in the big events I started to notice something: I saw the same people at every event, year after year. But with very, very few exceptions I never saw them at our tasting room. Not one joined the wine club. Of those that added themselves to our mailing list an infinitesimal fraction responded to invitations to smaller events, or to mail/email offers—even of sale wines. The big-festival-event-goer appears to be a particular demographic; their intersection with the world of wine is centered on these events.
Over the last couple of years I’ve talked this issue over with a number of other proprietors of limited-volume brands. Most of them are saying the same thing I am: the big wine festival is a singularly poor way to build a brand identity. They are bailing, as I have.
This limited anecdotal evidence does not make a trend, but what if this is the start of a trend? Will we get to the point where only the big, industrial producers show up for these festivals? Would anybody care?