Creating Tasting Room Experiences with Food Pairings
11.07.2019  |  by Milton Cornwell

Mark Twain, upon hearing that a newspaper had mistakenly published his obituary, reportedly laughed and said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” We think the same is true about reports that the tasting room is dead. The tasting room is not dead; but a new generation of wine goers is looking for a different experience. And the industry is delivering, especially when it comes to pairing wines with “culinary experiences”—i.e., food.

But before you run out to hire a highly decorated chef to find just the right plates to heighten your tasting room experience, there are a lot of things to consider. 

Why Food Pairing?

Gone are the days when consumers would plan out their trips to hit half a dozen to a dozen tasting rooms. People are now visiting one or two tasting rooms and lingering. And the wineries, for their part, are encouraging people to linger, using everything from music and entertainment to food to tours and even special rides and events.

Food pairing is seen as one natural way to get people to linger and offer an experience. First, people expect wine to be paired with food and are eager to learn the right pairing. So offering food to demonstrate such pairings, rather than merely tell consumers about them, is a much more effective way to showcase the wine and encourage the sale.

Second, food is an easy way to further engage the sense. It adds new tastes, textures, and aromas—things that even the coolest bauhaus decorating or hippest new band cannot add.

But, before you go out hiring a new chef, be aware that there are many pitfalls to watch out for when considering whether and how to serve food. While dreams of goat cheese agnolotti and black truffle sliders might make your heart race, it could be that simpler is, as always, better.

First Consideration: Permits and Codes

Wineries are not restaurants (nor do they want to be, in most cases). Serving food, then, must always be secondary to the creation of the wine, and local codes usually reflect that fact.

For example, Napa’s Winery Definition Ordinance states that wineries must function principally as agricultural processing facilities. Other functions—tours, tastings, events, and so on—are considered “accessory use” of the winery, and cannot “change the character of the main use.”

Of particular note in this ordinance is Section 12071 on the Marketing of Wine. It states: 

“Marketing of Wine” shall mean any activity of a winery identified in this paragraph which is conducted at the winery and is limited to members of the wine trade, persons who have a pre-established business or personal relationships with the winery or its owners, or members of a particular group for which the activity is being conducted on a pre-arranged basis. Marketing of Wine is limited to activities for the education and development of the persons or groups listed above with respect to wine which can be sold at the winery on a retail basis…and may include food service without charge except to the extent of cost recovery when provided in association with such education and development, but shall not include cultural and social events unrelated to such education and development.

In other words: As part of their efforts to market their wine, wineries can offer food in tasting rooms in order to “educate and develop” consumers about the wine being offered for sale. But, that food must be sold at cost and must be part of a wine tasting.

Sonoma has its own conditions on food services that must be met to maintain a typical use permit. For example, their permitting procedures state:

All activities allowed at wineries and tasting rooms are specified in the use permit and can vary depending on site specific factors. Food service is often included and the following provides examples of the typical food service condition. Always check the use permit for actual conditions for a particular site.

A restaurant, café, delicatessen or any other food service offering cooked-to-order food is prohibited. Table service, retail sales of cooked or prepared food or menu items are prohibited in the tasting room, except within the reserve tasting area for food and wine pairings… 

Again, food pairings are allowed, but one must be cautious not to cross over into the territory of being a restaurant. How this is determined depends on local ordinances but usually includes factors such as:

  • How much square footage is used for food storage and preparation?
  • Is there table service? How much seating is there?
  • Is the food prepared or packaged? Is it locally sourced?
  • What are the portions like?
  • Is the food offered as part of a food-wine pairing?
  • Is it being sold for profit, or at cost?

As a first step, you might want to check out this chart with definitions for several wine-producing counties.

Second Consideration: Sanitation

Wineries are already familiar with cleaning and sanitation when it comes to harvesting, fermenting, and bottling equipment and materials. And tasting room managers already know how important it is to have pristine glassware. But offering food adds another layer of complexity when it comes to sanitary practices, especially if you offer anything other than pre-packaged, shelf-stable snacks.

Take equipment and supplies, for example. You may need extra refrigeration to keep ingredients fresh, additional sinks for dishes (separate from any sinks for food prep), and additional cleaning supplies. Processes in the tasting room will need to be developed to make sure that appropriate sanitation is being maintained on a regular basis (including a good cleanout of that refrigerator!).

Serving food might also require a food safety inspection from your county. And even if tasting rooms are exempt from inspection in your county, you might still need to file the paperwork for the exemption. Please check local ordinances with regard to food, as well as your current permit, to make sure your inspections and permits are in order before investing heavily!

Third Consideration: Staff Training

How is the food to be paired with the wine? How is it to be described? How is it to be plated and served? How much do visitors need to know about the food, versus the wine? These are all questions you’ll need to consider, and once you know the answers, you’ll need to develop tasting room staff training around those answers.

Fourth Consideration: Marketing

Once you begin offering food-wine pairings, how will you advertise this fact to the public? Be careful, as there might be more ordinances to contend with. For example, in Sonoma, one is not allowed to have off-site signs advertising retail sale of pre-packaged food, and any signs have to conform to existing zoning laws for such. There are laws covering off-site tastings and samples, too.

Even after making sure your marketing plan will be in compliance with local and state laws, you should think hard about the messaging itself. You’ll want to keep the emphasis on the wines themselves, and mention food only as a “pairing” to help with further wine education. It should not be offered as a special or incentive by itself.

Putting it Together: Overall Cost and Return

Suppose you’ve got your permits in order, you’re keeping your food pairings in compliance with local laws, and you’ve got storage and sanitation figured out. You’ve also purchased the needed equipment, trained your staff, and developed appropriate marketing. Now you are probably asking yourself: Was it all worth it?

All of the above has a cost in terms of time and research. Given that, in many places, food must be sold at cost, what is the overall return?

The main return comes in the form of education and the crafting of an experience. Yes, these are notoriously hard to measure. But you might be able to get at them indirectly.

For example, you might have an idea of how long people stay in your tasting room. Does a longer stay equal more wine bought at POS? Or higher chances of joining your wine club? If you send wine club members any sort of satisfaction survey, do you see higher satisfaction correlating with tasting room visits? How does that correlation look before and after offering wine-food pairings?

This number might be tricky to get, but it can provide vital clues as to whether or not food pairings are doing anything to improve appreciation of your wine, and hence sales.

Advice for Offering Food Pairings in the Tasting Room

To end off, we offer a few key pieces of advice for those wineries wanting to embark on the journey to offer food-wine pairings:

Plan first. Look into local ordinances around permits, food, marketing, and so on. Crunch the numbers to see if there truly is value there. And consider alternatives, too. Food is great, there are some awesome chefs out there, and we love a good pairing… but maybe there are other, more cost-effective ways for your winery to build an experience.

Keep it simple. Wineries we’ve spoken with who have tried food pairings often report that, after trying a lot of things, they’ve elected to keep things simpler. This might mean lighter fare, or fewer menu items, or simply cheese and fruit boards instead of fancy appetizers. Remember, no matter how good your chef is, you’re not a restaurant. Keep things easy, and concentrate on your core capabilities.

Focus on the education factor. Impressing visitors is not your only goal. The idea of a food-wine pairing is to educate consumers so they can find wines they will appreciate. Don’t get trapped into thinking the experience has to mimic a fine-dining establishment. Think: How should food be presented to educate people about the wine and drive purchases and/or wine club subscriptions?

Have fun. Wineries are as different as the individuals and families who own and operate them. Some dream of a tasting room with the fanciest possible food-wine pairings. But that’s not everyone’s dream. Don’t just “do food” because it’s the latest trend. Do it because it adds an element of fun, for you and for the visitors.

We’re not the experts at running a tasting room, but common sense says if you’re trying to attract greater attention for you winery, a food pairing program can be a great way to do that. If you want a direct to consumer shipping experience that stands out from the crowd let Copper Peak show you how we make the difference. 

The Copper Peak Team