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Urban tasting rooms ‘the icing on the cake’ in Seattle

With wineries increasingly opening neighbourhood tasting rooms, L.M Archer reports on how the strategy is paying off in Seattle.

Silicon Valley Bank’s most recent industry report revealed a rise in urban tasting rooms, with Washington state leading the way.

“This is another spot where we as an industry have moved along in a really positive way,” McMillan observed. “Not everybody needs to have an urban tasting room. But they can be quite handy.”

Most Washington state wineries grow their grapes in rural eastern Washington, and some operate wineries and tasting rooms there.

Moreover, 130-plus tasting rooms and wineries currently operate in Woodinville, a suburb near Seattle in western Washington, home of Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Additionally, urban centres like Seattle prove a lucrative way for winemakers to meet consumers where they live – in their own neighbourhoods.

“A lot of my colleagues that are in eastern Washington, producing and making their wines, also have tasting rooms out there, and have opened tertiary or secondary locations in the Seattle area, where the people are,” says Ben Viscon, president of Seattle Urban Wineries (SUW), and owner/winemaker at Viscon Cellars.

Viscon, located in West Seattle, opened the area’s first tasting room in 2014. Today, three other wineries dot the same busy intersection along California Ave SW.  Indeed, neighbourhood vibes drive Seattle’s tasting rooms, from SODO (south of Seahawks Dome), Pioneer Square, and Pike Place Market, to Ballard and beyond.

There are 20-plus other wineries, mostly right in our own neighbourhoods, that are making pretty decent juice,” notes Viscon. “Everybody’s got their own vibe, their own profiles, their [own] wines.”

“For the most part, our winery members were founded by locals who either currently live here, or have lived here at some point,” adds Nancy Croisier of VinoSocial marketing and social media, and vice president of SUW. “They care about this city, and act on their desires to better our local community.”

Croiser also helps coordinate SUW’s annual POUR consumer tasting event each 4 November.

Hiring local

Keeping it local doesn’t just apply to consumers or winemakers. Urban tasting rooms tend to hire local, too.

We focus on hiring staff that is hyper-local, they are from the same neighbourhood that our guests are from,”says Teresa Jones, manager of Darby Winery.

Veteran winemaker Darby English opened his urban tasting room in West Seattle in 2020. “This allows the associate and guest to immediately have a commonality, a love for the neighbourhood, and much more engagement between guest and staff,” he says.

Urban tasting rooms also reflect community needs. For example, Viscon’s spacious tasting room triples as a rotating art gallery, quarterly wine club event hub, and after-hours rental event space.

The tasting room doesn’t charge a fee for after-hours events, but it does require a two-case minimum purchase. In return, Viscon benefits from additional case purchases, new wine club memberships, and word-of-mouth-referrals.

Convenience also trickles down to short-term tourists and visitors, many in town on business trips or vacation. Interestingly, Seattle urban tasting fees currently vary little from their non-urban counterparts.

We don’t structure our urban tasting fees differently; however, there tends to be more by-the-glass sales, and bottles opened and enjoyed on premise,” reports Jones.

Darby Winery also considers adding either a corkage fee, or upping bottle costs for on-premise enjoyment.

“When you are not doing a tasting, there is less incentive for guests to purchase bottles to take home,” says Jones. “They see/use you as a wine bar, so, we should be compensated as such for that seat.”

Viscon offers a different approach, charging a flat US$10 per tasting for four to six different pours.

“I just do one flat fee, even though I have lines that range from US$18 to US$50,” he says. He waives the fee upon the purchase of a bottle of wine.

While Viscon wine club members pay no tasting fees, they must choose to purchase a certain amount of wine annually. Unusually, when Viscon first opened his tasting room in 2014, he also created a Founders Club.

For US$100, founding members received an etched, numbered glass, which the tasting room stores behind the bar for them to use upon request. From a practical standpoint, the membership tier added an immediate cash injection into the new business. But it also added a level of privilege.

Other perks include no tasting fees, and no annual wine purchase commitments. Unsurprisingly, founders members count among Viscon’s “most loyal customers.”

Despite the benefits of urban tasting rooms, challenges do exist.

Frankly, I see a lot of the smaller wineries across Washington experiencing the same challenges,” says Crosier.Insufficient marketing budgets, limited resources, staffing challenges.”

“There’s tons of challenges,” concurs Viscon. “How to run a business, how to manage all the federal and local and cities taxes and audits, how to fix a toilet, or a hydraulic pump…I’m fixing things I never thought I would have to know how to. When you own your own small business, you have to get it done.”

As for overall return on investment (ROI), “ROI is good, as long as the rental/lease rate isn’t out of whack,” says Jones.  “You don’t need a large space to make a good return.  We have seen this work especially well with a second location.”

Jones contends that with already absorbed COGS (cost of goods), a secondary urban sales channel has proved to be the “icing on the cake,” rather than selling through a distributor or wholesaler.

Ultimately, despite the challenges, more and more Washington state winemakers want a piece of the urban tasting room pie.

“Investment in urban tasting rooms has increased greatly over the last couple years, from additional rooms popping up in Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Tacoma,” concludes Jones.

“These are generally outposts for wineries, to easily serve the neighbourhood in question.”

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