The news of the Long Island North Fork’s Peconic Bay Winery's decision to close its vineyard based tasting room in Cutchogue and focus on their Empire State Cellars wine center at the Riverhead Tanger Outlet Center, was received last January when we were returning from a wine tour of California's Monterey Wine Region (Monterey AVA, Carmel Valley AVA, Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) AVA, etc.) which was also listed along with the Long Island Wine Region as one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Top 10 regions for wine tourism in 2013.
Before we get to the linkage between these two events and places, we want to start by saying it is our opinion that General Manager Jim Silver, owners Ursula and Paul Lowerre, and the management team at Peconic Bay Winery and Empire State Cellars (ESC) wine center are true leaders in Long Island and in New York with regard to wine marketing and sales. We have previously stated publicly that ESC is the finest combined wine tasting, wine education and retail center we have seen in the US. To bring together virtually all New York wines, as well as artisanal ciders, distilled spirits and brews in one retail center is fantastic. So we do not question that there is undoubtedly a solid business case for the decision to consolidate, and as Peconic Bay Winery and ESC have been and are well run small businesses this is their sole decision.
Having said that, we were sadden that a Long Island tasting room located next to the vineyards had left to move to an offsite tasting room in a large outlet shopping center miles away from where the grapes are grown and the wine is made. One of the great charms of Long Island Wine region is that vast majority of the tasting rooms are located adjacent to the wineries and in the center of the agriculture. From grand tasting rooms as at Bedell Cellars, Raphael, and Wölffer Estate, to more moderate ones such as Channing Daughters Winery, Jamesport Vineyards, Paumanok Vineyards and Roanoke Vineyards, to the smaller ones as Croteaux Vineyards, McCall Wines and Shinn Estate Vineyards, the intimacy of tasting wines next to the vines is intoxicating. While we are not fans of the two or three "frat house party" tasting rooms that exist on the North Fork, virtually all the Long Island wineries shine in providing a great environment for both the casual visitor as well as for the wine enthusiast.
Offsite tasting rooms are nothing new. In fact in most of Burgundy unless you are a commercial buyer, journalist or another wine professional, your tastings occur in a community, cooperative, or commercial tasting rooms in the center of towns and villages some distance from the vineyards and cellars. The same is true for many wine regions elsewhere in France, and throughout Italy and Spain.
Tasting rooms as we know them today go back to the pioneering commercial wineries of California and upstate New York which used them to inform consumers about wine. In the 1970’s wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys began converting their tasting rooms into the revenue centers that they have become today when on site retail sales, wine tasting fees, and wine clubs were introduced. In the May 2013 issue of Wine Business Monthly (WBM) the results of a survey conducted in February 2013 demonstrated that Tasting Rooms represent a significant portion of the business for small and medium sized wineries. Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms average $164 and $101,respectively in sales per visit versus $42 in the Eastern States (New York was not specifically broken out in the survey according to WBM because an inadequate percentage of New York wineries responded to the confidential survey conducted by WBM and the Silicon Valley Bank, a major financial analyst of the wine industry).
This brings us back to the connection between Long Island’s tasting rooms and wine touring in the Monterey wine region. While initial vineyard plantings occurred 40+ years ago, the Monterey region which is 85 miles in length from South to North remained until recently more about vineyards and grape growing than about wine making and wine sales. Some of the region’s “name wineries” were and are in fact still located 400 miles South in Temecula and 175 miles North in Rutherford. So there were very few tasting rooms in the area.
However with the growth of tasting rooms as critical part of the wine business, offsite tasting rooms first began to appear in tourist locations such as Monterey's Pebble Beach Golf Resort and Cannery Row, as well as in art centered Carmel-by-the-Sea. More recently offsite tasting rooms have moved closer to the vines; in a shopping center in Carmel Valley, and in neighboring small towns in the valley that have tourist traffic, comparable to Anthony Napa's Winemaker Studio in Peconic, the Sherwood House Vineyards tasting room in Jamesport and Roanoke Vineyards tasting room in Mattituck. Unfortunately, like New York the average wine purchases in these Monterey tasting rooms was $45 in the WBM survey, the lowest of the West Coast wine regions.
Reflecting back on the visit to Monterey, as a wine enthusiast tourists, the best wine experiences were at the in the vineyards Bernardus Winery and the Robert Talbot Vineyards winery tasting rooms, second best the small offsite tasting rooms of Boekenoogen Vineyard and Winery, and the Parsonage Family Winery near the vineyards but located in charming small towns, and the least positive was at top tier producer Morgan Winery’s tasting room located in a congested shopping center. The hassle to find a parking space and then find the tasting room among the retail stores completely ruined the wine tasting experience.
So we strongly recommend that wine tourists that are traveling to the East End of Long Island this Summer to visit Long Island’s wine country take advantage of visiting the many vineyard tasting rooms located in or near the vineyards and in the small hamlets close to the vines, but also make the effort to include the Peconic Bay Winery's tasting room at Empire State Cellars in their tour, and hopefully have a much better experience in the shopping center environment than we had in Monterey.