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May 2021

California Re-Opening: How COVID Changed our Tasting Room Model Going Forward

[Editor's Note: thanks to Director of Marketing Ian Consoli, who contributed many of the ideas we're implementing, including an early draft of this blog and its photos.]

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to spur you to change something fundamental to your business. So it was when we got the news on March 18th, 2020 that we’d have to close our tasting room for the foreseeable future. When we were allowed to reopen in June, we were challenged to think of how we could give guests (and our team) the safest possible experience while also continuing our mission to educate them and showcase the great work our vineyard and cellar teams were doing. It’s only gradually that we’ve realized that the changes we made actually produced a superior experience to the one that we had been offering before.

Pre-pandemic, we were experiencing significant growth in our tasting room. It had reached a point where on busy Saturdays and holiday weekends, we were seeing 250 people or more per day. We always did what we could to make space for everyone, hiring more staff and even setting up tables in our cellar, but it was often a challenging environment to tell the story of Tablas Creek. You might squeeze into a bar space, next to someone already mid-way through their tasting, hear snatches of the story, get served a wine that you might not know, have your pourer try to quickly give you the overview of the property and a wine, all with four other groups at the bar at different points in their tastings. Not ideal for the customer experience, nor the wine educator. Our tasting room staff prides themselves on sharing the information they have spent hours learning and translating to customers. I remember hearing from some of our best tasting room folks who would feel dejected when the end of the day arrived and they realized they hadn’t connected with one individual or group because of the crowds.

Enter May of 2020. As we started to think about what a reopening plan might look like, we knew we wanted to be outdoors, socially distanced, in control of our traffic flow, with reduced contact between the wine educator and the wine taster. A few of the key choices we made were:

  • Tastings by reservation. We didn’t know what the demand would be for wine tasting when we reopened. But we did know that we didn’t want lines or crowding. Reservations were the solution, because they allow our staff to know who is coming, and to limit the traffic to the number of seats we have. But they have a value beyond that. We can prepare for a wine club member and greet them by name when they arrive. Or we can know what wines they have enjoyed in the past, or who referred them. They have value for customers too, who know they have a table waiting for them and dedicated to them, and know that the winery will be properly staffed.
  • Outside only. At the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t yet well understood how Covid-19 was transmitted. But the research that we did suggested that airflow was key to reducing transmission. So we opened outside only, even though the state had OK’ed wineries to reopen inside. When the regulations caught up with the science and forced wineries (and restaurants) to be outside-only a month later, we felt like our research had been vindicated. And the fact that not a single member of our tasting room team contracted Covid through the duration of the pandemic provided validation that we were able to create a safe environment.
  • Tables, not bars. We talked at the beginning about trying to move our tasting bars outside. But we worried that people really didn’t want contact with people outside of their group. Instead, we repurposed the tables we’d set aside for picnickers as our main pouring areas. Everyone who reserved got their own table for two hours. We made sure the tables were well distanced from each other. That was for safety and comfort reasons, but we realized that it had other benefits. Each of our hosts had a maximum of three tables at a time. That allowed our wine educators to judge how much attention each group wanted. The taster benefits from this individualized experience. The wine educator benefits from the opportunity to build a relationship with the group at each table.
  • Flight tastings. In our “before” tasting room setup, a guest was given a glass when they arrived, and poured a tasting. To move on to the next wine, they had to finish or dump out the previous taste. The complexity of this process and the number of people in front of any host meant, in practical terms, that we had to have a single tasting list for everyone. We would customize it a bit, offering some extra tastes or wine club exclusives as appropriate, but it was still the same basic lineup. Flights offer tasters a new way of experiencing a collection of six wines. We served them in groups of three, and guests could compare, contrast, and hop back and forth. We poured the wines inside and then carried them out with these cool touchless wine caddies. When we came with the second flight of three, it gave us a chance to check in with the guests and tell a little more of the story, but they never had to dump anything. The whole thing felt more elegant, more intentional, and less hurried.
  • Options for everyone. When everyone is getting flights, and they have the time and space (and menu) to navigate them, it opens up the options of customization. We gave visitors a choice between our classic (mixed red and white) selection, our red wine selection, and our white wine selection. During wine club shipment times, we made flights of the recent shipment, to help make up for the fact that we weren’t able to host an in-person pickup party. These options help encourage comparison and discussion; it’s not at all unusual to have each guest at a table pick a different option so that they can try the maximum number of wines. At a place like Tablas Creek, where we make upwards of 25 wines each year, that’s great for everyone. It also gives us the chance to do fun things like component tastings. In our current white wine flight, for example, a customer can try Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, which is composed of those three grapes (plus Grenache Blanc). It’s a made-to-order educational seminar.

We reopened with a significantly reduced capacity. Because of the time we gave people to enjoy their tasting, and the number of seats we had, distanced, around the tables on our patio, we were able to welcome a maximum of about 120 people per day, less than half what we saw on an average pre-pandemic Saturday. We expected to see our traffic decline on Saturday and Sunday, which it did. What we didn’t expect was that guests who tried to make a reservation on a weekend day and saw it fully booked instead visited on other days. Our traffic on weekdays actually went up, and our weekly traffic was only down by about 30%, from roughly 700 guests to an average of around 500. Even more interestingly, our average weekly tasting room sales were almost identical to those of a pre-pandemic week, which means that our average sales per customer were up nearly 50%. Our wine club conversion percentages went up similarly.

Why? We’re convinced that it was because we were giving people a better experience.

Of course, there are other factors involved. The outpouring of support from our wine club members and long-time regulars was amazing and heart-warming. Just getting out to go wine tasting was a little slice of normalcy in an incredibly challenging and stressful year. But we feel confident it was more than that. For years, our average rating on Yelp and TripAdvisor hovered between 4.3 and 4.5, with about half our reviews being 5-star reviews. That’s pretty good, and puts us in the top quarter of local wineries. But it was noteworthy that a decent number of the lower reviews mentioned that the tasting room seemed busy and impersonal. Every one of these lesser reviews that we could tie to a specific date had visited on a weekend. During Covid, the percentage of our 5-star reviews rose to 83%. That’s a massive jump. We really don’t think that it was just pandemic goodwill that was leading to the higher sales and club signups. It was that we were doing a better job.

So what does all of this mean for our tasting room?

Last month, we received the OK to move back inside as the county moved to the orange (moderate risk) tier in the state’s recovery roadmap. But by that point we’d already started preparing to bring that experience we’d offered outside over the last year to our indoor guests. The challenge was that our tasting room, built ten years ago, was designed around the traditional “belly up to the bar” experience. The bars are built into the room, and located around the outside of the space that looks into our cellars. There’s a big built-in merchandise display space in the middle of the room. It wasn’t going to be as simple as just putting some tables inside. The space wouldn’t work for that. It was Tasting Room Manager John Morris who zeroed in on the option that we settled on: keep the bars, but retrofit them for seating.

John contacted the same local craftsman who custom-built our concrete bar tops ten years ago and commissioned him to update the bars with new, wider tops that provided room for guests’ knees. He ordered comfortable bar stools for the guests. Those bars were installed last week:

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Semi-Private Bar

This process adds twenty-eight seats to our offered reservations. We’ve also added a few additional tables outside. Overall our maximum seated capacity will be more like 100 than the 65 that we had before. Guests will be able to reserve a bar seat inside, or a table outside. All guests, inside or outside, will have their own dedicated space and host, and be able to choose from our selection of flight tastings. And each will give a different level of interaction; think of it like being able to choose a seat at the sushi bar vs. a seat at a table. As we’ve learned, giving people a choice in their experiences has lots of other benefits.

All that will be welcome, we think, year-round. But having an indoor space will be critical on the occasional Paso Robles days where the weather is unfriendly. Last year we had to close entirely five days because of smoke or rain, and an additional twelve days had to close early when even with fans and misters we felt that the heat made the tasting experience unpleasant or even dangerous. Each time, we had to call customers to explain and try to reschedule, or if necessary cancel their appointments. That’s always hard. Going forward, while it may still be an issue with our outside seats, we’ll at least be able to move many of the guests inside. It gives us options. Seventeen days may not seem like much, but we got lucky. There have been plenty of years where we’d have had to close dozens of times if we were outside only.

When can you expect to see this new indoor space? We’re targeting July 2nd. That should get us an inside option before the full heat of the summer is upon us. It also gives our whole team the chance to get fully vaccinated, which we felt was important before we moved back inside. You’ll be able to book the tasting of your choice directly from our visiting page.

This decision isn’t without downsides, which we recognize. It will mean that, unlike in the times pre-Covid, a visit to Tablas Creek will require some advance planning. It will mean that if you go to a neighboring tasting room and ask them for recommendations, it might not be possible to just show up at the place you want to discover and have a space waiting for you. But we’re hopeful that with our additional capacity we’ll be able to take more walk-ins, and visitors know that it’s not only us who are making this decision to keep our visits by reservations. A visit to Paso Robles Wine Country may be less spontaneous, but it will be more relaxed and much more reliable.

We are very excited about how the tasting experience at Tablas Creek has evolved. We hope you are too. We can’t wait to welcome everyone inside in July. See you all soon!

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Long Bar