Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tasting room in your living room

Tasting room visits are big business; they're play time for grownups.

A new San Francisco company is betting on the idea that a tasting room visit is so much fun that people will want to do it in their own homes. And they're betting that you won't want to have any friends over.

Tasting Room will ship you a box with 6 miniature 50 ml bottles of wines and a very short description of each. The idea is that you will enjoy the tasting so much that it's entertainment on its own.

As a guy who tastes wine all the time, I had mixed feelings about it. There are wine tasting groups all over this country, where people get together with friends and open several bottles. They've sprung up organically, like book clubs, and work similarly. Somebody says, "Next week we're tasting Alto Adige wines," and everybody brings one.

Can a private company improve on that communal experience?

The answer depends on how much you like tasting with your friends. The Tasting Room is more commercial and by necessity more private.

The wine arrived in good condition. The bottles are cute. And I do like tasting wine.

There are two big downsides.

1) The boxes are pricey: the Grgich Hills sampler they sent me was $34.25 including taxes and shipping (note to FTC -- I didn't pay!) That's a lot for 300 ml total of wine -- the equivalent of $85 a bottle for a 750 ml bottle. Only one of the six samples in the bottle sells for that much. I did get a coupon for free shipping for my next order, which would cut the price by $6.95.

2) A 50 ml pour is fine for one person, adequate for two, and unbearably small for four. (By comparison, a standard restaurant glass pour is about 140 ml.)

The size problem means Tasting is either a couples or a solitary experience. But there may be some utility for it in anniversaries, date night, etc.

My wife, who sees me open a half-dozen regular-sized bottles for tasting all the time, was far more excited about the Tasting Room box. She loved the cute bottles. She took photos, she took notes. It was as if the tiny bottles brought the experience to a human scale she could enjoy.

The wines come with a pretty little information sheet that in this case actually gave one or two useful notes, such as where the vineyards are. (PR word I'm tired of: "nestled," as in "nestled in the northern tip of Napa Valley.")

You can buy wines at a slight discount from the Tasting Room site. It's always a treat to taste Grgich's Chardonnays, and for us the 2007 Grgich Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay ($36) was the pick of the crop: toasty yet balanced, with vibrant fruit.

Would I have rather just had a bottle of it? Possibly, but my wife preferred tasting little drips of 6 different wines, and since she's closer to being a normal wine consumer than I am, her experience is more valid. She enjoyed the experience just as the company intended. As for me, I mixed the Cab and the Merlot just to see if I'd like them better together (I did) -- something I only occasionally do with full-sized bottles.

I thought I might mock the concept, but instead find myself telling you its proper use: as a couples' night thing, a fun event for a weekend. But keep in mind that the sampler contains only about two glasses of wine total. That might not keep you busy even as long as a real tasting room visit. But what the heck, it is date night, right?


Jon Bjork said...

I'll have to admit that I'm really more of a wine taster than a wine drinker. So these new small bottles appeal to me.

For example, there's just about no way I'm going to plunk down a handful of Benjamins for a bottle of Screaming Eagle. However, I might consider spending a ridiculous (but within cash budget) amount per mL for Screagle to see what all the fuss is about.

These small bottles are especially useful for the not yet established new brands of more expensive wines, that most customers are just not going to buy unless they get a taste first.

One other thing: how can they charge just $6.95 for shipping, unless they are absorbing some of that cost? UPS charges something like $6 just for the service of getting the required adult signature. said...

So, in total, there isnt even, in total, a half bottles of wine here?

partyofsix said...

I love this idea! A great new way to buy wine that I can taste first. Especially if I'm going to spend >$30 on a bottle, I want to make sure I like it first. Worth the price and I get 2 glasses of $40-$80 wines---it would cost me $15 - $20 per glass in a restaurant. I DO like the idea of free shipping on the bottles I buy after I've tasted!

Todd Trzaskos - VT Wine Media said...

There is another company called Brixr that also puts out 50ml stelvin capped sample tubes, with noce labels and a wood box using a simlar marketing tactic. I have to wonder if what the consumer really needs is more half might cut through some of the obstacle to trying new things, and expand the market in general. Not as sexy, but half bottle screw caps should even have aging potential.

Vinewerks LLC said...

I'm familiar with both Brixr and Tasting Room products. Brixr can tie the tastings with their website for others to see as well. This is getting a fair amount of wine industry press, but not much in general. I like the idea, but worry that consumers may not feel the price of producing the 50ml samples in a shippable format is worth the price. My local winery contacts see the pricing as too high, since there are few of their wines that sell for over $30/750 ml bottle. Otherwise, it's a great way to taste smaller winery products from a distance. Let's hope shipping wine direct stays legal!