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  • Writer's pictureCRAIKER

Napa Wine Tasting Satellites & What Customers Want

Chris d Craiker AIA

The city of Napa has embarked on an interesting late Winter/early Spring event which I hope becomes annual: The Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Passport by WineD allowing guests to visit up to 25 wineries for a single fee. Of course, as an architect, I can't resist visiting wine tasting rooms and making observations about their environment, presentation, designs and........of course, tasting their wines.

My first visit to the “City” of Napa in 1992 was a surprise since most trips to Napa County bypast the municipality for the vineyards and the few wineries Up valley. While short of hospitality facilities at that time, I also noticed Napa’s high retail space vacancies which suggested a missing opportunity for wineries to show off their wares. Back then, the style was pretty much to “belly-up-to-the-bar” at a winery warehouse.

Since then, the world has changed. Napa has by one report 90 tasting rooms, or satellites, depending on who you ask. The next closest area with satellites is all of Sonoma County with maybe 55. Even little Rita Hills AVA, with about a dozen satellites, is whimsically named “Lompoc Wine Ghetto”. The Napa downtown second annual Passport April 12 -21 was an excellent chance to not only taste the wines but ogle the interiors and designs.

Wine tasting rooms were typically located on the premises of the winery or brewery's production facilities, where guests might sample and hopefully buy bottles of the establishment’s concoctions. Offsite satellite tasting rooms are relatively new, born in the ‘90’s, although during the Renaissance it was common to find a remote wine shack selling multiple wines from various wineries. These became bars and wine and beer stores.

We visited 20 of the 25 wine tasting rooms on two weekends and they were all exemplary. Clean, well-organized and presented by excellent staff with in-depth knowledge of the wine and it’s production. While the architectural context varied widely, there was one common architectural styles: whitewalls with gray and black accentuations, the latest Home & Garden lighting pendants and multiple recessed ceiling fixtures. Nothing wrong with that but they deserve more. Here are some suggestions on what wine tasting rooms should achieve:

  • Make it welcoming - The tasting room should be inviting and encourage visitors to choose yours from the multitude of options out there. They want a presentation, if not a ceremony. Open up the front the best you can with big windows, folding or sliding doors/ windows. Provide an indoor/outdoor feel and sidewalk seating helps.

  • Work with the space and it’s environment - Undoubtedly the original retail space has ugly walls, concrete floors or other flaws that actually are worth accentuating. Make the space feel original and unique. Polished rough concrete floors and exposed brick walls add character.

  • Use bold colors and fabrics - Eclectic designs and materials can differentiate you from the next-door satellite. Look for colors to help accentuate your wine. The outdoor spaces of the vineyards can provide warmer weather feelings or industrial details can make the space stand out.

  • Provide a variety of comfortable seating options - While some bar seating is acceptable, especially for walk-ins, being able to gather people on couches around a coffee table or a full dining table or comfortable chairs is essential.

  • Well educated wine specialists. - Having educated presenters who know their stuff is essential. Being able to carry on an intelligent conversation and not repeat “floral tones, and fruity taste” every sentence is essential. Be original and tell the tales of the owners as well as the wine

  • Tell the winery history and family origins - For me, this is one of the most important elements missing in so many wine satellites. Every winery has history and family connections. Show them off. It's how the family worked its way up from gardeners. Show off their original tools in artistic fashion. Provide family and ancestral photos with their stories. People love knowing the wine came from simple but dedicated souls.

There is a crucial point when the number of downtown wine satellites reached a saturation point.  While every North Bay city is anxious for the tax revenues and to fill their empty shops, the process of opening a tasting room can take six months to a year and require significant financial resources for the processing of Federal, State and local bureaucracies. The good news is a satellite tasting room doesn’t require fancy use permits or visitor maximum numbers as do wineries in rural areas. But when are there too many wine tasting rooms? Maybe when you see sign-twirlers out front, it’s time to slow down.

As to my favorite satellite wine tasting room in Downtown Napa? I have to give high praise to Roots Run Deep at 1607 1st St. because it doesn't feel like a wine tasting satellite. It's a Craftsman-style turn-of-the-20th-century restoration that feels like somebody's front room. And that's exactly what you want.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB wonders what will attract Millenniums and X-Gens to Wine Country

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