Is This the End of Australia's Free Wine Tastings?

A few years ago, the majority of Australia's wineries handed out glasses to visitors, a business model that doesn't lend itself to recovery in a post-COVID market.

On its website, Australian winemaker Thomas Wines shares the details of its two tasting experiences, which are available every single day of the week. Its first offering is called The Discovery, which includes introductory pours of four Semillon and four Shiraz varieties, while the more deluxe Journey tasting gives guests the opportunity to sample "up to 17 wines," including its Semillon and Shiraz offerings.

The Discovery costs AU$10 (US$7.20) per person, while the more elaborate Journey tasting is AU$20 (US$14.50). Neither one seems to have an unreasonable price tag, but the fact that the vineyard is charging for all of its tastings is a new development.

friends doing a wine tasting
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According to The Guardian, the number of Australian wineries that charge for tastings has steadily increased in the past two years, jumping from 29 percent in 2017-18 to 50 percent last year. But the post-pandemic (or mid-pandemic) world that we'll be living in for the next… however long has made others winery owners realize that asking customers to pay for those often-generous samples is probably the way to go.

"My gut feeling is that within the next year or two free tastings will be very much the exception rather than the rule," Thomas Wines boss Andrew Thomas told the outlet. "And not just in the Hunter [Valley region]."

Thomas said that in the Before Times, the winery offered both free and paid tastings, but the downturn in sales and the effect of being closed for two months made them reconsider. He also said that the response from customers has been generally positive, and isn't exactly bothered about losing the business of someone who'd be upset about paying $20 bucks to try 17 different wines.

"The winemakers work incredibly hard to share their product and expertise, and it's been a lifelong struggle to put a dollar value on that," Kylie White, a PR consultant at wine-centric firm White Ink, said. "I've spoken to three different winemakers who've had to change their offerings in a big way but they've all said to me 'There's no way we'd go back. Even though the numbers [of guests] are smaller, we're getting a higher spend per person and we're taking more than we ever have. Why would we ever change that?'"

The new tasting fees — which are commonplace in many U.S. wine regions — may also feel like a necessity, since tourism numbers have plummeted this year, and it could be some time before they return to pre-pandemic levels. In a normal year, the Hunter Valley is the most-visited wine region in Australia, bringing in 1.4 million annual visitors; this year, the guests will mostly be other Australians, since the country's borders are currently closed to everyone except Australian citizens, residents, and their immediate family members.

"The Hunter Valley has had a horror start to 2020 with the triple threat of drought, bushfires, and Covid wreaking absolute havoc on our industry," Christina Tulloch, the CEO of Tulloch Wines and the president of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association told VinePair.

She added that opening cellar doors are typically when wineries have the "best success" in wooing new customers and enticing them to join their wine clubs or mailing lists. "When visitation drops, our future earning potential also takes a hit," she said.

Asking wine lovers to spend a few bucks to support a local winery and sample some of its special or seasonal offerings doesn't sound like it should be a hard sell at all.

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