Will Drunken Guests Destroy Wine Festivals?

Festival tasting at Ft. Mason 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

Ah'm So Druuuunk! 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

These aren't the droids 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?

7 thoughts on “Will Drunken Guests Destroy Wine Festivals?

  1. Rusty Gaffney MD

    Hi John

    I am glad someone came out and wrote what I have been thinking for months. I attend every Pinot Noir festival of any size and except for World of Pinot Noir and IPNC, these events attract a demographic interested in an afternoon of drinking and not seriously exploring wine. In talking with wineries, I find that typically 20 or so people sign the winery mailing list, but when offered wine shortly after (often at a significant discount), no one orders! As far as I know, I am the only one to report in detail on these events and wineries do get exposure through my website, but other than that the time and expense involved in participation at these walk around tastings is rarely justified. There has to be a better way but I have not been able to figure one out. John, can you think of a better approach to publicly marketing a small winery brand to a large group of people?

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Hi Rusty – thanks for weighing in. As unproductive as most of these festivals are for wineries, I have to think they are equally frustrating for professionals like yourself. My friend Samantha Dugan (French-wine specialist for the Wine Country in Signal Hill) captured this in a recent post about her first Family Winemakers tasting experience.

      I don’t have an answer to your question. What I am absolutely certain of is that burning a day or two to pour wine for 1,000 guests just to get 20 email addresses of people who will never turn into customers is a particularly egregious waste of resources.

      I can see where these events would be helpful to trade who might actually be interested in discovering new brands, but my experience over the years is that you are one of the few journalists who actually takes the time to do so. It’s the same with distributors, brokers and retailers during the “trade-only” portions of these events. I used to just laugh when the doors would open to the trade and everyone would make a beeline to, say, Williams-Selyem or Kosta-Browne, while the rest of us stand around rearranging the deck chairs.

      And then when the “trade” actually would make it to our table—more likely than not during the crush of the consumer portion of the event—I would discover that 99% of the time these worthies were staff or salespeople, or friends of the business; rarely, rarely an actual principal or even a decision-maker. I’m as social as the next guy and I love to party too, but I’m in business and these events need to be business.

      Twenty years ago these events were one of the few avenues to market a small winery to a large group of people. The crowds were smaller, and the number of wineries participating was less. Things are different today – I could write another 1,500 words on the nature of this change, but the capsule version is that these days the marketing tactics that work for large and even established mid-sized wineries do not scale down to work for small and new brands.

      I will argue that today a limited-production brand does not need to market to a large group of people at all. I would rather fly all over the country every week pouring for private groups of 30 or less, where I have motivated, interested potential customers all to myself (or sharing them with one or two other producers) than waste another dollar on a regional association’s festival event. I don’t need “exposure”—what I need is more opportunity to form and support one-to-one relationships with loyal customers. There’s no shortcut to building that kind of customer base.

  2. Thomas Pellechia


    Not only event-goers are guilty.

    I specifically remember an event in NYCity, when a drunken distributor sales rep walked down the up escalator, banging into the sides and righting himself a few times; then, after somehow making it to the bottom, he tumbled and rolled Chaplinesque style across the hotel floor until a wall stopped him cold.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Yeah Thomas I’ve seen a deal of those as well—a few of them from behind my own table. I used to invite friends of the winery to help us pour at these events. After serving their time they were free to wander the event and sample at the other tables. One time too many, a guest pourer returned from this sortie too banged up for comfort—to the point that I didn’t want them wearing our winery name tag, much less back behind the table. Beyond the optics, it was ultimately liability concerns that led to my decision to stop inviting guests to pour with us.

  3. Amy Tsaykel

    Okay, okay. You speak truth, Mr. Kelly… but not all large tasting events are created the same.

    Eighth Street Wineries Open House has, in three years, grown from an impromptu gathering of a few dozen people to a crowd of over 700 at our most recent event.

    Along the way, we have continually held meetings of the winery owners (currently ten) to keep a tight hold on the quality of the event. It’s a continual effort and there is plenty (!) of room for improvement. Yet the “caliber of crowd” topic comes up at every single meeting. How can we make sure we reach out to our best audience?

    Lately we feel like we’re finding some answers.

    a) Avoid pimping out the event through quick sales like Groupon. This tactic devalues the experience and reels in people who are not likely to fully appreciate it.

    b) Keep the ticket price at a “sweet spot” that is accessible, but reflects the value of our wines. When we charged twenty dollars per person, we had guests so drunk that we actually had to call the paramedics. We raised the price and haven’t had problems since.

    (This is not to say that people with money are better behaved–by my observations in this business, they are absolutely not! It’s to say that if the wineries put forth the true value of the experience in the ticket price, the audience will respect that by acting civilly.)

    c) Format the event so that the focus is on the wine, and the wine alone. We don’t distract the guests with bands or other “entertainment” because we are not entertaining them. We are simply sharing our wine.

    d) Size isn’t everything. Don’t worry about getting too big, too fast. stay focused. How many wineries can a person visit in a day, anyway?

    Eighth Street Wineries has gotten glowing reports on the crowd from our last several events. Sure, there are always a few purple teethed stumblers… but overall, we’re doing pretty well.

    None of this is directed at Wine Road; I’ve never attended Wine Road. I’m bummed that some of the revelry around their event has caused negative publicity for large scale tastings, because (in my totally biased opinion) I think large scale tastings can be done **well**. For my own part, I’m always working to make ours better.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Ms. Tsaykel – your well-thought-out comment is most welcome here. You are absolutely right that all festival-style tastings are neither created equal nor executed equally. I hope it does not seem like I was specifically picking on Wine Road events – it was the article in the Press Democrat that prompted me to make a more general comment regarding how I (along with an increasing number of other small producers) view the value and liabilities of these events.

      I appreciate the challenges you face with Eighth Street Wineries events, and respect the efforts you have made to improve these gatherings. Avoiding the Groupies is a given. I also fully support the idea that a higher ticket price acts to change the nature of the crowd; once the price rises significantly above the average cover charge for a night club, the fraction of the group that is just there to party drops. The value perception changes from “how much can I drink?” to “how many wines can I taste and remember?” That is why making sure the focus of the event is on the wine and not on the food or entertainment is so important. But in my opinion the single most critical distinction of the Eighth Street Wineries events that they are smaller than events like those held at Ft. Mason. God help you if they get bigger than they are today.

      As you well know, our winery does not participate in the Eighth Street events, and it doesn’t matter to me how “well” done they ever become – we will not. I stand by the calculation I made in the post: no matter how “well done” this sort of event ever becomes, these events do not attract the customer demographic we want for our brand. I don’t need these events for the very weak “exposure” they provide, and I really laugh off the idea that I need to participate in them because some of my cohort do – these events are not my kind of purgatory or penance, I am not into that kind of self-flagellation.

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