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Written by Jim Brumm
After several visits to different wineries one thing quickly becomes apparent, many of the tasting rooms are strangely similar. They all have a bar where you stand and taste and a table with non-wine items emblazoned with the winery’s logo.
There are differences between tasting rooms of course, but the basic theme is much the same from one winery to the next and nearly all stick to the model that has been in place since the seventies.
During the busy season, tasting rooms will have the inevitable crowds bellying up to the bar, while busy tasting room employees try to greet, serve, and describe the wines, while remembering who has tasted what, and attempting to close sales all at the same time.
Having said all that, we have to admit that this system does sell wine. But we also need to acknowledge that for wine country visitors, after just a few wineries the tasting room experience can get old fast.
Long-time wine aficionado Kelley Anne Dove saw this and decided to try something new. Last December she opened Vin Couture Wine Lounge – a tasting room unlike any other – in downtown Healdsburg, California. Having worked in the wine industry for many years, Dove thought there was a better way to help educate consumers and make the tasting experience more enjoyable. “We wanted to bring to the consumer the things we in the industry do without thinking – the things that develop our palate,” she said.
But first she had to convince the ABC to let her do things differently. Usually in a collective tasting room there is a rule that requires the tasting room to provide a separate bar for each participant. “The ABC calls this ‘dividing real estate’,” said Dove. “We are the only one that has been approved to have this beautiful, customized way to sit and experience a flight.”
Vin Couture Wine Lounge doesn’t look like a tasting room. There is no tasting bar. Large, arched windows look over Healdsburg Avenue and the beautiful town square and throw lots of natural light onto furniture that ranges from comfortable, contemporary couches with stainless steel and glass tables between them, to rustic, wooden chairs and tables. Art adorns the walls and soft French music plays; it is a place that beckons one to linger.
Visitors, instead of standing at a bar, are seated together and assisted by one of Vin Couture’s wine experts. Instead of telling visitors what is being served, the wine experts at Vin Couture carefully interview their guests about their preferences.
“This is the ultimate personalized tasting room experience,” said Dove. “Every single flight is customized to fit the tastes and palate of each guest. We ask questions – we engage – all in the attempt to bring our guests something that they will really enjoy.”
In the center of Vin Couture is a table with a dozen or so wine glasses. This, according to wine educator Mellissa Langlois, is their aroma station. Each glass has a distinct aroma from items such as raspberries, cola, leather, pepper, tobacco, cinnamon, coffee, and more.
These glasses are incorporated into the wine tasting experience. “We want to provide people with more knowledge about wine and help them develop their palate. It’s much more than just standing at a bar,” said Langlois. “So many people come in and have no idea how to identify what they taste. Our aroma station helps them isolate and identify the different aromas they are experiencing in the wine.”
“Vin Couture actually strives to match and pair the wines to their clients’ tastes,” said Michael Talty of Talty Vineyards, which was Snooth.com’s Winery of the Year in 2011. “I love the concept because it’s a much more intimate experience. I appreciate that they evaluate a customer to create their pairings which means that there is a greater chance that people are really going to love what they taste.”
Vin Couture’s wine educators guide their guests through the experience, explaining terroir, pairing possibilities, and wine-making styles in order to show what makes each wine unique, and increase the guests’ understanding of wine.
“I wanted to empower the consumer and give them this knowledge in a relaxed, non-threatening environment,” said Dove. “A winemaker may say that a wine is very acidic, but the consumer doesn’t know how to evaluate that. I wanted to bring these tools to a single tasting and help people understand more about wine and how to articulate what they prefer, and why.”
For each tasting, visitors are given an “experience card” to make notes, along with a stem card describing each wine tasted. Afterward, these are all folded together and tied with a silver ribbon and given to the guest to take with them.
Phyllis Rogers is co-owner of Chateau Felice, another of Vin Couture’s featured wineries. “We’ve had several tasting rooms,” she said. “We even participated in two other multi-winery tasting rooms, but when we found out about Vin Couture, we knew we wanted to be a part of it. Kelley Anne is a woman of good taste with lots of experience in the wine industry. The concept is upscale and our wines are elegant so it was the perfect fit.”
Though Vin Couture is technically a collective tasting room, it truly feels more like a beautiful, cozy lounge where one can be entertained and waited on while tasting some of the best wines in the region. In fact, the term “lounge” came about when Kelley Anne Dove started something she calls “Swirl after Six.” After six p.m. all the wines at Vin Couture become available by the glass, accompanied by small plates of food. The wines can be purchased at the same prices available at the individual wineries and Vin Couture offers live music on Fridays and Saturdays.
Thinking back to the traditional, belly-up-to-the-bar tasting room model, it’s easy to see what a refreshing change of pace Vin Couture offers. When a guest has been seated, listened to, and served in a comfortable atmosphere, they are much more likely to buy the wines that they have tasted.
Today there are more wineries than ever which means more competition than ever. Those that learn to think outside of the box and find creative ways to set themselves and their wines apart are going to succeed. If you are a winery owner and have been doing your tasting room the same way for a long time, it may be time to revisit your ideas about what makes a good tasting room experience. How can you make visitors remember your winery and your wine?
Kelley Anne Dove came up with a new concept that offers individualized attention, sit-down tastings, and more education. Today visitors to Vin Couture Wine Lounge leave with more knowledge about wine and have a tasting experience that is enjoyable, unique, and memorable.
Wine bar or wine lounge: If you were a visitor to wine country, which would you prefer?
Vin Couture Wine Lounge
320 Healdsburg Avenue
Healdsburg, CA 95448 – Map It