The Tasting Room: Branding or Marketing

In selling wine, especially in the tasting room, there is a difference between marketing and branding. Yes, the two are often co-mingled, but they must be interpreted and managed differently. Without brand identity, it is hard to market wine. We do not want to take this discussion in an esoteric direction. However, tasting rooms are an opportunity to go far beyond just selling wine; the real bonus lies in creating a tasting room to sell wine and reinforce a brand identity, i.e., branding.

Maybe it would help to look at branding this way: “Branding is to a company (winery) as personality is to a person. Branding is as much inward as outward-facing. If you have a strong, trustworthy brand, your employees are happier, more motivated, and more loyal,” says Mr. Russel Cooke, A Customer Relationship Manager professional. “Branding is the allocation of resources to promote awareness of your brand, products, and services. The purpose of marketing, in a nutshell, is to communicate your brand’s value to potential customers.”

Branding is a process that happens over time, like how our personalities evolve, but at some point, the personality becomes defined for people to recognize. Marketing will use advertising (print, radio, TV), designs, collateral materials to build awareness for a brand and hopefully call the consumer to action.

Is a tasting room only for sales? I would submit the answer to be, “a tasting room is a terrible asset to waste solely on sales.” A brand is a legacy asset in perpetuity, and sales are fleeting. Wine sales is an effort that must be created each season anew; a brand lives on to be destroyed or strengthened, so chose your brand identity wisely!


In any marketing or branding experience, the complexities of successfully executing these tasks are mindboggling, truly. In the wine industry, the task can be exponentially more complex because of ancillary issues such as Federal regulations, outside issues that influence product (weather), local government constraints, et al. Selling coffee mugs should be a bit less complex. In the direct-to-consumer marketing arena, the tasting room is the only place where the winery can control and execute its plans in branding and selling/marketing its product in real-time. Here, a visitor comes to you and says, tell me about your product and by-the-way, I want to buy. Wow, what an advantage in marketing!

The tasting room is truly the only face-to-face time a winery impacts all the human senses that will influence a sale and hopefully a repeat sale. I submit, therefore, the visitor’s interface experience with employees is the most important; why else do companies send representatives to visit the customer? Airlines at one time felt that e-mail and video conference calls would negatively impact their business; facts proved that wrong. Nothing can replace the impact of people looking directly at, communicating with, and feeling the persona of face-to-face interactions.

Maybe you are still doubtful of this line of thought; well, consider reality TV’s successes. Shows like American Pickers and Fixer Uppers are shows about people, experiences, and their lives. American Pickers or Dirty Jobs shows that now spend most of the time focused on real people and their stories. A tasting room experience is communicating with people who love wine and want to be sold and learn about the brand story. Yes, taste the wine, but tell the visitor the story of the brand.

Let’s assume for this discussion that a significant number of people do decide to visit a specific winery for numerous reasons. To illustrate the point. A few years ago, I saw a study that listed various reasons why individuals visited a winery:

  • Wanting to see the winery that made their favorite wine.
  • Referred by friends.
  • I wanted to experience a winery or location.
  • I wanted to buy wine to commemorate a visit to the region. Marketing

The premise is, branding through interpersonal contacts within tasting rooms is important and maybe even critical to all wineries, large and small. This branding tool will give instant product feedback about marketing and branding because the visitor is engaged with a winery representative. Finally, public contact winery employees can immediately address visitor product queries. We inherently buy products (wine) and services based on relationships and a feeling (trust and enthusiasm) about the relationship with the company/winery.

Many years ago, I visited a winery selling expensive wine, expensive by the standards of 3 decades ago, and I ask a simple question: What makes your varietal more expensive than another winery? When I ask the question, I did so with an obstinate tone. To the credit of the tasting room employee, she artfully engaged me and others within earshot in discussing what makes their wines more expensive/quality. She was responsive, unoffended, engaged, and converted to a marketing missionary for her winery’s quality wines—my first real experience with real-world branding.

I believe in the power of branding and how it impacts sales, production, finance, and longevity. Tasting rooms that draw upon a winery brand and reinforce the brand will ultimately sell wines. Without a good brand, marketing is a very tough exercise for a winery. My fantasy for tasting room effectiveness #101 is:

  • Be met at the door and be given a brochure about the winery, its management, an explanation of the winemaker’s philosophy/approach to the product, and information presented with a sense of pride. Whether the tasting is free, charged, or one by appointment only, the brand experience is most important whatever the business model. For example, have you ever been to a humble facility’s winery, yet you connected with the brand because of the people? Conversely, have you been to a very well-appointed tasting room and left feeling underwhelmed?
  • Realize visitors are buying an experience and hopefully a relationship. Just read a list of old wine quotes, and one soon realizes the wine has long been elevated based on the experience of wine.
  • Nice people that know the wines their winery produces.
  • Employees who engage me in understanding what makes their wines great that is part of their brand image.
  • Visitors want a story about the brand and then the wine.
  • If staff in the tasting room have a “belly-up-to-the-bar” presentation to the visitor, the winery has diminished the value of a tasting room by more than 50%, even if the visitor buys a bottle of wine.
  • If the branding and marketing effort work together, the sale happens. Then come the wine club sale, new vintage follow-on sales, and direct mail with collateral materials. As a channel of distribution, the tasting room is a winner.
  • Know the vineyards from which their grapes come and why that is important.
  • The staff is proud of the product.
  • I want to understand what I like and why.
  • Treat me respectfully and at my level of experience. The tasting room is not about where the staff can show their knowledge of buzzwords and technical points-bad branding.
  • And a tasting room that sends me on my way with a farewell that makes me feel good about my visit and purchase. “Please enjoy my wine and drop me a note to tell me when you drank it.”

A winery tasting room that does these things will encourage me to buy more, share my experience with others, and give me a super long-term view of what the values are of this winery-hopefully one of excellence. As a “back of the napkin” exercise, if you are a winery owner or tasting room manager, write down precisely how you think your winery’s brand is defined by the visitor, then the distributor, restaurant/on-premise buyer, and retailers. Then ask yourself, is that the brand I want, need, and can live with for the future. People buy the brand first and the marketing story second; the brand lives on, but the marketing story will change because of many dictates.

Attitude and product knowledge of the tasting room staff, interpersonal skills, level of interest by management and staff throughout the organization; all these factors ooze the organization’s brand definition. Wounders do not need to spend a lot of money to create a brand, but the tasting room is coming from the inside out.

We never forget that branding and marketing are complex and rarely turn out great without in-depth planning, initiating experience, constant training and reinforcement of strategies, buy-in at all levels, and updating the plans.

A tasting room should present the brand to the public as desired by the owners. “Branding is the truth, reputation, and value of a small business’s image, ethics, and craftsmanship. It is the stamp or logo on a product that becomes a household name and trusted as a brandMarketing is the sales-driven tactic which stands behind branding,” says Monique Ouellette. Notice that marketing is behind the brand and drives the “call to action” to drive the sale. Apple is a great brand and marketing organization. Look at the branding of their retail locations (tasting rooms). Disney is another great brand that is on display in their tasting rooms. Don’t confuse branding and marketing.

Pamela W. Holloway

Hipster-friendly zombie fan. Writer. Internet specialist. Bacon maven. Pop culture practitioner. Spent 2002-2010 developing strategies for saliva in the aftermarket. At the moment I'm supervising the production of mosquito repellent in Africa. Was quite successful at lecturing about acne in Cuba. At the moment I'm working with wieners in the aftermarket. A real dynamo when it comes to implementing Yugos in the UK. Spent 2001-2005 donating wooden trains in Pensacola, FL.

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