Ah, wine tasting. For so many of us, it calls to mind a pastoral scene: top-down drives over rolling hills, leisurely picnics with a view of the vineyard, and sips of the Central Coast’s best among barrels in a rustic cellar. Right?
Not so fast. A new band of progressive wineries is challenging the status quo for wine tasting here on the Central Coast, and their target is your local downtown. Here, we look at the ups and downs of wineries who pour their wines – and a bit of themselves – into the heart of the city.
As Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, Jim Fiolek has a bird’s-eye view of downtown tasting rooms from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria. His take on vineyard vs. downtown tasting rooms? “You’re going to get more ‘accidental tasters’ in a downtown spot – people who otherwise had no plan to taste there – which can be turned into a positive.”
Embracing that opportunity is Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines, who uses his position in downtown Santa Barbara to capture new wine tasters. “There are a lot of people who come to Santa Barbara with no intention of wine tasting and never make it over the hill into ‘wine country.’ If they’re only willing to do a half-day walk from their hotel, the convenience and proximity factors are on our side.”
A few years ago, Dave Yates of Jaffurs Wine Cellars saw the chance to capitalize on the attention of these “accidental tasters” by developing The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail, an association of 11 wineries located within two miles of the center of town. “It started slowly as we built relationships with our fellow urban tasting rooms,” he explains, “and then it grew into a loose affiliation that enjoys joint marketing activities.” Yates describes the benefits of being within arm’s reach of downtown. “We have a lot of synergy with restaurants and hotels. Restaurant customers will say ‘Hey, this is great wine!’ and the restaurant will tell them that the winery’s right here in town, just 2 blocks away.”
Kalyra Winery co-owner and general manager Martin Brown asserts that the difference between an urban and a traditional tasting room is one of demographics. “People who go to wine regions are going for the main purpose of enjoying the whole wine country experience. The people on the Urban Wine Trail often stumble across it. They pick up one of our brochures and think, ‘This is cool – we can experience a wine trail right here!’”
Joanie Hudson sees the Urban Wine Trail as a boon for in-town tasting rooms. As Director of Marketing for Santa Barbara Winery (that city’s first downtown tasting room) and Lafond Winery & Vineyards (Lompoc), she has perspective on the culture of both a wine country tasting room and one that makes its home downtown. “We get a lot more foot traffic downtown, especially since the Urban Wine Trail began,” she says. “Over the past two years the trail has really grown – it’s become its own little destination.” Hudson cites the convenience of providing wine tasting as one of many activities for a family to experience when they visit Santa Barbara. “Kids don’t want to drive around Santa Ynez to watch their parents taste wine,” she reasons. “It’s easier for a family to weave a downtown wine tasting stop into the day’s activities than to spend all day tasting.”
In San Luis Obispo, the Pithy Little Wine Company acknowledges that not everyone who stumbles upon their new downtown tasting room will be a wine drinker – or even interested in giving wine a chance. Alongside its comprehensive wine program, Pithy offers a selection of house-made sodas to non-drinkers, children, designated drivers and dedicated soda-lovers alike. As former manager of the exclusive and enigmatic Club 33 – Disneyland’s members-only dining club – Pithy’s proprietor Jeff Munsey says, “If working at Disney taught me anything, it’s that adults are more prone to enjoy themselves if their children enjoy themselves, too….A guy came in last Saturday with his kids and we served them a ‘flight’ of our sodas in Riedel stemware,” Munsey shares. “Kids have zero insecurity when it comes to describing flavors, which is exactly how we want anyone to feel when they walk in.”
While urban tasting rooms offer an unexpected, non-threatening atmosphere to the first-time wine enthusiast, they also provide locals with a relaxed place to hang out and bring their friends, says Martin Brown of Kalyra, which boasts tasting rooms in the Santa Ynez Valley as well as along the Urban Wine Trail. “We have a big wine club, so a lot of local members visit the Santa Barbara room because it’s almost like a clubhouse. We’ve hosted several downtown-only events for members that have attracted a lot of the people who live here.”
Kari Kittinger of Clayhouse Winery in Paso Robles echoes the attraction of urban tasting rooms for residents. “Having a presence in town has fostered a lot of camaraderie with the locals,” she says of Clayhouse’s storefront, which is at home among downtown Paso Robles’ cafes, bakeries, art galleries and renowned restaurants. “We have a room here just for club members where they can bring their friends for a complimentary tasting and snacks. We see a lot of people taking advantage of that.” In fact, the local crowd has embraced the Clayhouse tasting room so much that the winery has started a “Locavore” membership program just for residents. “‘Locavore’ is separate from the wine club,” says Kittinger. “It’s for the local who just isn’t ready to commit. All it takes is coming into the tasting room for a bottle once a month, but the benefits are fantastic. We see this paying off already because it’s so low-maintenance, easy, and fun for local wine drinkers.”
Strength In Numbers
As Paso Robles’ reputation for fine wine continues to blossom, the user-friendliness of a program like ‘Locavore’ is sure to gain traction in more tasting rooms than Clayhouse. In just a few short years, the area surrounding Paso’s City Park has exploded with 16 downtown wine tasting venues that comprise “The Paso Robles Downtown Wineries,” including Edward Sellers Vineyards & Wines and Kiamie Wine Cellars.
“We [downtown] wineries are very supportive of one another. We get together once a month and brainstorm ways to engage the public as a group because we’re all so new,” says Kittinger, mentioning “The Art of Wine,” an event featuring local artists and winemakers hosted by the Downtown Wineries. “Together, we chip in on the price of ads and split donations for charities like the Rhone Rangers auction because it keeps costs down for each of us. Plus it brands and markets downtown.”
Dave Yates reinforces the notion of “strength in numbers” for downtown tasting rooms. “With a cluster of wineries together, Santa Barbara is more of a destination for wine. As a group, our main tool is a single brochure that’s stuffed into all the hotel card racks with a map and description of each of us. We’re all pretty small wineries, and the cost of printing and stuffing is prohibitive for any one of us. But with eleven, we can divide the costs.” He adds, “It’s not only cheaper but also more of a draw for customers. They’re more likely to use a brochure featuring eleven tasting sites on it than a brochure for just one.”
Joining forces as an “urban wine trail” is one thing; but what about wineries that come together under one roof in a downtown setting? One high-profile joint marketing effort was Taste in San Luis Obispo. Launched by the San Luis Obispo Vintners’ Association as a consortium project, Taste poured the wines of most member wineries from Arroyo Grande to San Luis Obispo from state-of-the-art, consumer-operated Enomatic serving systems. Though sadly closed since the fall of 2009, Taste was an ambitious attempt to bring local wines to consumers, as opposed to luring consumers out to wine country. “It all started when a class of Cal Poly students surveyed people in downtown SLO,” says San Luis Obispo Vintners’ Association Executive Director, Becky Gray. “Their main goal was to discover how many people knew about SLO wine country. Eighty percent had no clue that it existed!”
Gray recalls the challenges her association faced at the time. “SLO Vintners’ Association is so small – we’re not as big as Paso Robles. We were spinning our wheels trying to launch a national ad campaign without adequate resources. So the idea arose that if eighty percent of visitors to SLO were coming without any awareness of our wine country, why not do something downtown to get the word out? Instead of placing national ads, we decided to expose people to the wines of San Luis Obispo right where they were.”
Over the course of Taste’s five-year tenure at the corner of Morro and Monterey Streets, Gray says that while some association members had mixed feelings about the venue, Taste achieved its goal of bringing awareness to the region and its producers. “All along, Taste was intended to be a five-year project,” she explains. “As with any marketing effort, you evaluate after a certain amount of time and ask yourself if it’s worth it or not. Taste accomplished what we wanted, but we decided to move on to something else. We saw that it was a success because so many small guys were discovered there despite having wineries off the beaten path. This downtown venture gave a boost to our association and a lot of our small producers, which is what the bulk of our organization is.”
Good News For The Small Guys
It’s a common misconception that every winery is an estate winery, or a winery that owns its own vineyards. But the truth is that many Central Coast producers like Pithy Little Wine Co. and Jaffurs Wine Cellars buy their fruit from grape-growers – which is not to say that the quality of their wine is anything less than outstanding. On the contrary, several of these small winemakers boast some of the highest-scored, in-demand wines on the market, with a handful opting to sell their product to the public by opening tasting rooms in the center of town.
“Small production equals hands-on production,” says Becky Gray. “We’re seeing a younger generation of winemakers in SLO County who love wine and are fascinated with the process, but who don’t have the finances to make more than a couple hundred cases a year. Downtown tasting rooms give them an opportunity to have a storefront and sell wines at a price point that’s reasonable. To open a winery and tasting room in the traditional model is expensive, but hey, you don’t get into the wine industry to get rich! It usually starts as a hobby. It’s farming, not a quick cash turnaround business. But the downtown model gives the small guys a chance to make a business out if it.”
The Flip Side
Of course, no business is without its challenges. For downtown tasting rooms, much of the difficulty lies in satisfying customers’ romantic notions of what a winery should look like. “A lot of people want vineyards as part of their tasting room experience,” says Dave Yates. “Some people don’t know the difference between a winery and a vineyard so they come [to Jaffurs] expecting rolling hills and vines!”
Jeff Munsey echoes the sentiment. “It can be hard to capture the romance of being immersed in wine country….Our visitors are only left to judge the experience based on the quality of the wine. As a result, we work hard to ensure [that] everything about the wines – from the way they taste to the bottles we use to the label design – creates a ‘wow’ factor.”
While the prospect of “accidental tasting” invites an entirely new cross-section of the public to enjoy the world of Central Coast wines, the flip side reveals that those new enthusiasts are less prone to buy than they are simply to taste. Says Seth Kunin, “The people who make the trip into a famous tasting area like Los Olivos are wine buyers, whereas [in downtown Santa Barbara] it’s more of an activity like going to the beach or the museum. They’re not thinking about buying wine. Our challenge is converting the tasters into buyers.”
Moreover, the mechanics of converting tasters into buyers is another challenge facing downtown tasting rooms. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors are on foot,” says Kalyra’s Martin Brown. “It’s very difficult for them to buy a case and take it with them. At most, they buy two bottles or they try to ship them, but with restrictions on shipping laws that can’t always happen.”
Kari Kittinger relays the trials of finding parking near the Clayhouse Winery tasting room. “Paso Robles doesn’t have metered parking or a parking structure downtown,” she says, “so people park their cars around the park and the movie theater for hours while potential customers can circle the block several times before giving up. It’s just a matter of time and funds before Paso is able to build that kind of infrastructure.”
Carol Blakesboro, manager of Stolpman Vineyards’ tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, affirms the many advantages of a central location. “Los Olivos is a wine destination town, so people come here for the wine. We love our clientele, and we love the benefits of the referral system when there are so many tasting rooms grouped together.” Conversely, she says, “The challenge is that there are a dozen or so other tasting rooms within a two-block radius for people to taste in. We have to be extremely aware of our clientele. My staff is very well-trained on how to read the signs of people who may have had too much.”
Just The Beginning
Despite the inherent difficulties of starting any new venture, the downtown tasting room trend is on the rise. New venues crop up every month, from Phantom Rivers Wine in the village of Arroyo Grande, to Aron Hill Vineyards on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero, to Baywood Cellars and Bargetto Winery on Cannery Row in Monterey. “With people stopping into a downtown tasting room, you need a different approach than with those out at a winery,” says Jim Fiolek. “How you treat people doesn’t change from place to place, but the angle may be a little different.” Not surprisingly, Fiolek likens this process to that of planting vines. “You just have to know your customers. It’s sort of like knowing where to plant your vineyard and which varieties will thrive in that particular environment.”