Wines & Vines

Best sellers: what moves in tasting rooms

Best sellers: what moves in tasting rooms – related article: AVF Grants Top $15 Million

Jane Firstenfeld

On a brilliant Sunday morning, a dozen well-dressed adults belly up to a long bar and chat convivially as clean-cut servers hustle to keep their glasses damp. The room is architecturally striking, with slate floors and cathedral ceiling; trestle tables display colorful arrays of earthenware and crystal; preppy apparel shares floor space with crates of wine. Except for the bar, it could be a Union Street boutique in San Francisco, but this is, in fact, the tasting room at Kunde Estate Winery & Vineyards in Kenwood, Sonoma County.

There was a time in living memory that winery tasting rooms were simply that–places where, perhaps after an obligatory tour and almost always gratis, winery staff poured and described samples of their specialties and gently persuaded their guests to purchase a bottle or a case. If anything besides wine was offered for sale, it was probably for practical and perhaps immediate use: corkscrews and wine glasses being the most obvious examples. A relaxing drive in the country, the wine, the process of making it, a possible conversation with someone involved in that process, these were the attractions at all but the grandest Napa Valley operations when I began visiting wineries in the 1970s.

Well, just as winemaking in the United States has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, tasting rooms have evolved, some of them taking on blockbuster proportions as they serve voracious flocks of seasonal tourists. And just as the number of wineries has proliferated, so has the variety of wares available in their tasting rooms.

Tableware, jewelry, gourmet packaged food, books, and crafts of all ilk have joined the wine glasses, cork pullers and logo shirts of yore. You could furnish and accessorize your home, stock your refrigerator and fill your closets by browsing through just a few well-chosen tasting rooms, if a recent visit to half-a-dozen wineries along a five-mile stretch of Sonoma Highway is any indication.

Is all that seemingly miscellaneous merchandise overshadowing the wines? Nope, it turns out, just complementing the vintages, like wine well-paired with a carefully chosen meal. Even at Kunde, which would have to rank as one of the more elaborate tasting room retail operations, merchandise other than wine accounts for a mere 20% of tasting room sales, according to tasting room manager Jody Stewart, who decides which products merit prized floor space in her operation. “Wine-related merchandise and Kunde logo wearables are what we specialize in,” she says, “but wine glasses and our chocolate sauces, ranging from $8.95 to $17.95,” make up most of the sales volume.

“These items are unique to the wine country, and give our clients something to go home with to remember their trip,” Stewart says. Kunde’s private label food items are the most profitable of her inventory. Stewart buys seasonally, and rotates merchandise to keep the room “looking fresh.” And, even if they are not the most profitable, Stewart insists, “Logo wearables are a must!” Kunde’s logowear and other items are also available through the winery’s wine club, newsletter, and online at

A few miles up Sonoma Highway, the tasting room at St. Francis Winery is equally attractive, with a garden view and a stone fireplace, but here, the merchandise selection is stripped down. In fact, retail room manager Lisa Verbish chose to discontinue any nonwine-related items to make better use of limited space and keep the focus on the wine. Her biggest sellers are $19 logo hats, cork pullers at $9.95, maps, $12.95 and a variety of cookbooks.

“These are reasonably priced gift items,” Verbish notes, and they are also easily packable. Verbish sells more logo hats in summer and more food products in fall.

Food products and ceramics are her most profitable performers, but, she says, logowear and bottle openers are absolute essentials. Verbish estimates her nonwine merchandise contributes about 10% of the tasting room sales, and some merchandise is also available online at

Nearby, across the highway, the cooperative Family Wineries of Sonoma Valley tasting room concentrates even more determinedly on the wine. Operated by Deerfield Ranch Winery, Mayo Family Winery, Meredith Wine Cellars, Nelson Estate Vineyards, Noel Wine Cellars, Sable Ridge Vineyards and Sunce Winery, most of the floor space is occupied by the tasting bar, and the rest is shared by the seven wineries. Tasting room manager Bill Taylor makes most of the decisions, “but he usually confers with us–the owners. But he knows that we never want to get too far from the theme of wine accessories or wine motif items,” according to Janae Franicevic, owner/manager and self-proclaimed “wine wench” of Sunce, who was pouring on my Father’s Day visit.

Logo T-shirts and wine glasses, wine country refrigerator magnets, corkscrews, gift wine boxes and bags, bottle stoppers and small, decorative wine barrels share shelfspace with gourmet olive oils. Franicevic gleefully showed off her most profitable item, a wineglass stamped with the Sunce logo in 14 kt. gold, which at $5 each bear a 250% mark-up. “They are in the right price range for a customer to make an impulse buy.” Many people collect wine glasses, she notes, adding, “it’s the perfect memento and we need to order glasses anyway for wine tasting, so if we over-buy, we’re not worried.”

Besides the glasses, logo T-shirts ($15), corkscrews ($7) and magnets ($4) are the biggest sellers. “They’re useful while they’re on their trip, they’re easy to transport back home and they are a memento, a reminder of the good time they had visiting our winery,” Franicevic says. She has stopped stocking food items because of their short shelf life, as well as cookbooks, wine stem charms, coasters and the like, “because most of our serious buyers are men.

“There is no greater profitability than retailing the wine which one makes,” Franicevic states, adding that nonwine sales at the co-op amount to less than 7%. The merchandise is not available online, but buyers who join Sunce wine club receive a free logo T-shirt.

Off The Beaten Wine Path

Wineries like Kunde, St. Francis, Sunce and their neighbors benefit from the hordes of summer vacationers and weekend daytrippers who throng the highways and backroads of California wine country. But wine country is, after all, anywhere there’s a winery, and there are wineries just about everywhere. Even a cursory glance through the listing of wineries in North America in Wines & Vines’ Annual Directory/Buyer’s Guide reveals that the vast majority are open to the public, even if only on weekends or seasonally.

Cavas Valmar, in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, sees only about 500 tasting room visitors yearly, according to winemaker and general manager Fernando Martain. Still, his sales of wooden cases and wine glasses contribute about 2% of his tasting room revenues.

Back in the U.S.A., Deena John, co-owner with husband Fred of Wyoming Crafts & Wine Cellars in Sheridan, Wyo., (population 15,800), was eager to discuss her strategies for keeping a business going in “small town America.”

John’s winery is equally diminutive, making just 700 cases of fruit and grape wine each year (they import crushed grapes from Canada). The tasting room, which is open only from Memorial Day to Dec. 31, sees approximately 2,000 visitors a year. John stocks corkscrews, wine glasses, charms, wooden gift boxes, fabric wine bags and a particularly apt specialty item, wine racks created by Fred John out of recycled horseshoes, which are the shop’s most profitable items.

John says she formerly carried etched wine glasses and an annual, etched bottle series, but discontinued them because of supplier problems. While non wine merchandise accounts for only 2% of tasting room sales, John says, “If I have more than two requests for an item, I try to carry it.”

As the name of their operation implies, the Johns also help make ends meet with a crafts supply store adjacent to the tasting room, where local jellies and herbal supplements share space with wine–and beer-making and art supplies. Some tasting room merchandise is available online at

The Cuthills Vineyards tasting room in Pierce, Neb., draws an average of 9,000 visitors yearly. Logo wine glasses, “bread dippers” and jewelry made by co-owner Holly Swanson are the biggest sellers. Swanson’s “Jewels by Holly Eve” are one-of-kind beaded and sterling silver baubles selling for $25 to several hundred dollars. Bread dippers are not, as you might think, a variation on fondue forks but rather dips made by Private Harvest, mixtures of spices, olive oil and vinegar. “I love grilling fresh asparagus with the oregano/basil,” Holly Swanson says.

Cuthills also stocks logo shirts and glasses, other food items and cork pullers. “We’re in the process of finally getting our name on the cork pullers,” says Swanson, who is responsible for the merchandise.

Like most of the other managers, Swanson calls logo wine glasses a must. “So many people just collect glasses. They’re great souvenirs,” she says.

She has discontinued pastas, grape seed oils and cookies, which were “hot sellers for several years, but now so many gourmet shops around our area carry the same food items.” And she’s pulled all of her old logo apparel out of the shop, saying, “We saturated the market for the styles we previously carried. Now we are going for a different look.” Jewels by Holly Eve will soon be available at

Finally, the tasting room tour stops in Moscow, Idaho, home to the University of Idaho and Camas Prairie Winery, formerly Camas Winery. Perhaps because he’s in a college town, owner Stuart Scott finds his business is seasonal, to “match the seasonal nature of wine sales. Besides holiday business, those times that coincide with college events are good business times for everything.”

His best sellers and most profitable items are corkscrews and stoppers, which Scott feels are essential for any tasting room, along with Vac-u-Vin winesaver pumps. He reports that nonwine sales bring in about 5% of tasting room revenues, but, unlike our other sources, he has discontinued not just posters and label collection albums but both the seemingly ubiquitous logo T-shirt and the logo glass.

Maybe in a college town, you just have to wear the school colors.

BC Wine Institute Approves Screwcaps

The British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI) adopted regulations permitting “alternate closures” (read screwcaps) on wines bearing the B.C. Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) label. Members of the institute had overwhelmingly supported the change.

“The new policy provides a choice to our member wineries on how best to seal their wines while ensuring that consumers will enjoy the same high quality product they’ve come to expect from the British Columbia VQA label,” according to BCWI president Len Bykowski.

Honeybee Puts Wine In The Bag

Biodegradable gift bags will protect and promote wine purchases and help fund scholarships for needy Indian children and U.S. inner city youth programs, if Badri Narasimhan succeeds with his new Honeybee Enterprises, Inc.

Narasimhan, a 31-year-old immigrant from South India, founded Honeybee with a commitment to sharing the proceeds with striving young people in both his native and adopted countries. His search for products with international appeal that could be manufactured in the neediest section of India led him to create the Honeybee wine bag.

The bags, which come in single and double bottle sizes, are constructed of a rustic, bio-degradable burlap fabric and bamboo handles, handprinted with safe, bio-degradable dyes. Hundreds of stock designs are available, and the bags can be customized with logos, embroidery or appliques. No child labor is employed in their manufacture.

A unique feature is the optional polyvinyl window on one side of the bag, allowing the wine label to be easily seen. Narasimhan hopes the bags will catch on in tasting rooms and retail wine outlets. Wholesale prices range from $1.49 to $2.10, CIF, depending on size, design and quantity. For details, contact Honeybee Enterprises, Inc., 752 Longmeadow St., Longmeadow, MA 01106, phone (617) 548-9518 or e-mail


AVF Grants Top $15 Million

The American Vineyard Foundation (AVF) recently granted $1 million in research funds and announced that, since 1987, it had distributed more than $15 million in research grants. For 2003-2004, AVF is funding 29 projects directly and is working with other commodity groups and state and federal agencies to leverage a total of $2.9 million to fund other high priority research projects, according to executive director Patrick Gleeson.

AVF and other grantors worked together to review 113 proposals, and agreed to fund a total of 60. This year, the groups cooperatively funded more than $290,000 for research to combat the newly emerged vineyard threat, vine mealybug.

More than 1,200 wineries, growers, associations and individuals donated money to fund this year’s research grants. The top five contributors were E. & J. Gallo Winery, Bronco Wine Co., Canandaigua Wine Co., Trinchero Family Estates and Robert Mondavi Winery. For more information, visit the Web site

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